Wild Sea Press Interview
Jonathan Greeley and Ruth Thompson are the husband and wife team behind Wild Sea Press, a small web design company based in Eugene, Oregon. Since starting their business last year, they’ve been busy building a diverse portfolio focused on custom themes and website management. Over ninety percent of Wild Sea Press’ sites run on WordPress.
When did you first start creating websites?
Ruth: We first started creating websites in January of 2011, and started using WordPress almost exclusively a few months later.
Can you describe your workflow before WordPress? What platform where you using, if any? Why did you switch?
What challenges do you face as developers?
Ruth: One of our biggest challenges is time management—we work in a very competitive freelance market and many of our clients don’t have big web development budgets, so we have to produce a lot of websites if we want to make ends meet. One way we deal with time constraints—which seems a bit counter-intuitive—is by spending a lot of time communicating with our clients. If we know what our client wants, and what their business needs are from the start, we can spend more of our development time productively, and less of our time creating the wrong features and changing things after the fact.
Beyond that, some other challenges include managing client expectations and scope creep—many of our clients are starting new businesses—they want to take over the world and they are hugely excited about their websites. We handle this challenge on a client-by-client basis. For most clients, a clear outline of the scope of the job before we start and an offer to add features at our regular hourly rate keeps things reasonable. We’ve learned to filter out clients who rush to the building phase before adequately planning their business startup. It’s next to impossible to make someone happy when they call each day with a brand new vision for their site.
What is your approach to project management?
Ruth: Being a two-person team that works from the same office, we find project management pretty easy. We do smaller projects individually and work on larger projects together. Our best way to manage team projects and avoid stepping on each other’s toes is to divide the work between form and function. Our division of labor is loose however, and we often simply take on different tasks throughout the day and keep synced by checking in with each other frequently.
Between the two of you, who handles form? Who handles function? Can you describe a typical workflow?
Ruth: In the beginning, we envisioned a clean break between front and back-end, but for our average WordPress build, this just isn’t that practical since it’s often 30% back-end and 70% front-end. For smaller sites we typically don’t work together, so we’ve both become fairly comfortable switching gears at every level, though I have more programming experience and Jonathan has more front-end and design experience. As we take on more sophisticated theme builds where functionality occupies more of the development focus, I can spend a larger portion of time developing the back-end and dealing with custom functionality requests.
Here’s a typical workflow: we collaborate a great deal during the planning phase and hammer out a plan for all the different components of the site. I head to the bat cave to build loops and functions while Jonathan cranks out HTML5, LESS, and design-level jQuery and begins building templates, menus, and widget designs. Emailing and client communication can be taxing, so we trade-off depending on who needs to focus the most at any one time. Toward project completion, the front/back-end division of labor breaks down a bit as we launch all the sections of the site and begin the quality assurance phase. Using LESS has helped us to pursue a more modular approach to styling that cuts down on redundancy and us stepping on each other’s toes during this phase.
How has your business changed since implementing WordPress?
Ruth: WordPress has been a slingshot into functionality for us. WordPress’ in-built functionality, its ease of customization, and plugin availability allows us to quickly give our clients features that would take us weeks or months to build from scratch.
Additionally, being WordPress specialists is a bit of a selling point—WordPress is a hugely popular platform, and many people come to us with WordPress already in mind—so having a portfolio filled with WordPress sites gives us an edge over other developers.
We’ve even heard from prospective clients, “yeah I need a WordPress site—I’m not sure exactly what that means but I hear it’s good.”
What features, plugins or themes do you most frequently use on your clients’ sites?
Ruth: For most of our clients we develop custom themes—either from existing websites and designs, or from scratch. We build our themes on Starkers HTML5. We often use WordPress’ ability to make custom post types and taxonomies, custom fields, and metaboxes. We frequently use Contact Form 7, Snapshot Backup, SEO by Yoast, WP Super Cache, Shadowbox, and Adminimize.
We have used WPML in the past and were pretty impressed at its ability to streamline translation management and language switching.
Underthinkit was an interesting site to build because the client was particularly concerned with edit-ability, and wanted to minimize the need to use HTML to edit the site. We built the back-end with extra visual editors and maximized the use of customized widgets, custom post types and custom taxonomies to make the administration of the site as smooth as possible. We made it possible for the client to use the visual menu editor to set up each menu item on the homepage drop-down menu to retrieve content from both a post category and an unrelated custom taxonomy simultaneously.
Have you created any plugins or themes of your own?
Ruth: Yes—we often develop custom themes with plug-in-like functionality built in. We have also made a couple of plugins for our clients, but nothing publicly available yet.
Regarding plugins, can you give us a sense of the functionality of the plugins you’ve created?
Ruth: It’s always a toss-up on where to draw the line between themes and plugins, and many of our sites are based around content management functionality that’s in traditional plugin territory. We’ve decided it’s more efficient to accommodate clients who are uncomfortable with anything other than WYSIWYG than it is to provide the additional follow-up teaching/support when they need to edit things later. When we can, we go heavy on custom metaboxes and fields, multiple editor panels, custom content types, and enhanced versions of WordPress widgets. Basically, we like to keep our clients completely out of the code. Examples include custom Q&A entry management for large FAQ libraries, systems for managing shared and unique sections of a large number of custom sales landing pages, and using individual custom content posts to populate jQuery sliders.
Sometimes we take the work of others and expand on it to fit our needs. For example, we built an entire theme around Supersized—a jQuery full-screen background slideshow by Sam Dunn. This includes an easy way to attach individual images and galleries to specific posts/pages and AJAX retrieval of pages/posts with corresponding slide transitions. Later we made an options page for this where people could change the size, location, and style of the content windows using a posh jQuery UI interface. We’d like to release this in the repository eventually, but it’s often on the back-burner as we focus on paid work.
What resources do you turn to to keep learning about WordPress? Are there any blogs, publications, podcasts, etc., that you find useful that you would recommend?
Ruth: We’ve browsed a number of books on WordPress but have found that the WordPress Codex is almost always sufficient to answer our questions. We absolutely love the varied contributions to SmashingMagazine.com and follow their publications almost daily.
What’s the one thing you wish someone told you when you were starting out, but you ended up having to learn the hard way?
Ruth: I wish someone had told me to use WordPress to build myself a site and play around with plugins before making sites for clients. When I first started with WordPress I often found myself re-inventing the wheel only to find out later that there was a WordPress feature already built in, or a plugin that could do what I needed.
Jonathan: I wish someone had told me to stay away from jobs involving major layout modifications to premium themes when you don’t have control over the design. Many premium themes are heavily built and it’s almost always easier just to whip up something from scratch than to accommodate a design that is out of touch with the theme.
What does the future hold for Wild Sea Press?
Ruth: As a business, we’re hoping to move from a bootstrapped home office to a brick and mortar establishment in the next year or so where we can meet with clients face-to face, and with this, we hope to move toward building total solutions (from brainstorming through implementation and maintenance) for our clients.
As individuals, we are always working to broaden our skill sets. We are very excited about WordPress plugin development—both of us enjoy working on the functionality end of websites, and we’re eager to release our first public plugin. We are also very interested in mobile development—not just websites that look good on smartphones, but AJAX based web apps that are really made for the smartphone interface.
Anything else you’d like to share?
Ruth: One of the things that I really enjoy about WordPress is how easy it is for our clients to use—I think that a lot of people expect that managing their new website is going to be difficult and confusing, and I love showing people around the dashboard and seeing them take to it easily.
Jonathan: I particularly enjoy shattering people’s preconceptions of WordPress as “just a blogging platform.” I’m always flattered when someone looks at a website I’ve built and exclaims “that’s WordPress?!”
For more on Jonathan and Ruth, visit wildseapress.com.