Pull Quote: No one is excluded from carving their place in the WordPress industry.

Embrace Who You Are and Others Will Follow

Wondering how a university drop out with ADHD and a criminal record found a spot in the WordPress community? Read on to see why it’s often your “faults” that can make you a major asset to any product team.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a knack for spotting an opportunity to make money. Even as an industrious seven-year-old, I knew that if I spent my birthday money on a value-size container of gumballs, I could sell them off to my classmates for a profit.

Soon, every school recess and bus ride was a chance to make a sale and as I grew, so did my appetite for the hustle. Eventually, I replaced gumballs with mowing lawns and later, importing and reselling electronics. As long as there was a demand, nothing was off-limits.

At this point, you may be expecting the rest of my story to go something like “serial entrepreneur switches to digital products, joins the WordPress community, and lives happily ever after,” right?

Well, there are a lot more twists and turns before that since my hustling did end up getting me into a lot of trouble. My WordPress origin story includes a tale of how I escaped government spies in China, served a prison sentence in Kansas, and ultimately turned my mixed bag of (decidedly non-technical) business and people skills into a marketing position at Sandhills Development.

Tyler Lau with Alain Schlesser at the Open Film premiere at WCUS 2019 in St.Louis.
Tyler Lau with Alain Schlesser at the Open Film premiere at WCUS 2019 in St.Louis.

Jack of all trades, master of fun

One of the many reasons I’m always on the lookout for new projects and business opportunities is my Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), a diagnosis I received nearly 14 years ago. As the only child of a divorced couple, all the attention was on me, but I couldn’t seem to keep my attention on anything.

Luckily, the disorder that made me a restless child has made me a creative and adaptable adult. In my current role, I’m a marketing relationship builder at Sandhills Development, a plugin company with a portfolio of brands including AffiliateWP, Easy Digital Downloads, and Restrict Content Pro. Unlike most people at Sandhills who focus on one or two of our products, my role spans across all our digital properties.

Not only am I representing a portfolio of products, but for each, my tasks involve post-sales communication, partnership, and affiliate development, B2B sales, and event marketing. Behind the scenes, I also organize our company retreats, book WordCamp travel arrangements, and even helped open two Sandhills breweries in Kansas. That’s right, we branched out of tech into beer!

In a way, I’m the people person at Sandhills Development and the face of the company to many in the WordPress community. In an industry built by programmers and developers with outstanding focus and attention to detail, someone with ADHD wouldn’t seem like a natural fit. And yet, the WordPress community really is one of those places where everyone can find the right spot for their unique mix of skills. For me, my skill was people, and that has translated into a slew of responsibilities.

Chatting with sponsors at WordCamp Seattle 2019.
Chatting with sponsors at WordCamp Seattle 2019

Relationship-building as a career

On paper, there isn’t much that qualifies me to work for a tech company. Most of my previous experience was in the restaurant industry, something I’m still quite passionate about. That’s probably why I am always in charge of food at our company retreats. In fact, even though I was far from a Luddite, nothing on my CV pointed to a career in tech. And yet, that fast-paced, customer-facing service industry environment has actually prepared me the best for everything I’ve taken on since.

When I’m at events on behalf of Sandhills, I’m meeting people from all over the world and developing personal and professional relationships with them, all while managing the logistics of event marketing. As an extrovert, I love it and I couldn’t imagine a job that didn’t involve relationship-building.

Understanding people and being able to operate in any setting isn’t just an asset to grow a company, it can also be key to surviving in precarious environments. While my social tact is useful for making friends and building community in the WordPress space, at one point in my life, it was necessary for survival. Like the time I went to prison.

The true meaning of freedom

In the WordPress community, the concept of freedom comes up often. The GPL, free software, open-source communities…These are all fundamental values on which WordPress is built. Practically speaking, anyone can launch a company, become a freelancer, work remotely, or be their own boss to gain more freedom in their work and life. This is particularly appealing to me as someone who has never fit into the traditional work mold and as someone who now values my freedom more than ever.

Tracy Apps, Josepha Haden, Ema DeRosia, Sophia DeRosia
With attendees at WordCamp Ann Arbor 2019

Six years ago, my inner opportunist got me into trouble with the law selling marijuana. It was a quick way to make good money and after dropping out of college following a brain aneurysm, I needed capital to fund my first startup. Between my shifts as a waiter, I worked on prototypes for my first product. The company was growing fast and to protect my patents and take R&D to the next level, I had to work really hard.

Everything came to a screeching halt when I went to prison. If you’re wondering if prison is like TV shows and movies, the answer is both yes and no. It’s harder in a lot of ways but my spirit never broke. Meeting other inmates reminded me that I was in a much better situation than most. I was educated, well-off, loved, and knew I had a future once I was released.

Many inmates never graduated from high school and are completely computer illiterate. While on the inside, I taught science, math, writing, reading, and social studies. But still, I know many of them will struggle to get the mental health support and the job training they need to thrive after they serve their sentence. There’s more to freedom than just being on the outside. You also need a sense of agency and enfranchisement. As for me, my sense of purpose and my support network were plenty to keep me going and I was ready to take on my next (legal) business challenge as soon as I could.

With sponsors and organizers at WCUS 2019 in St. Louis
With sponsors and organizers at WCUS 2019 in St. Louis

Your past doesn’t define you but you can choose to embrace it

I’m an outlier in many ways. From the day I was born, I was political. My father is a semi-dissident Chinese visual anthropologist and my mother is an art professor who left her home country of Japan to break from traditional Japanese gender roles. If you’re familiar with the history between these two nations, you’ll know a relationship between their citizens is rare and discouraged. I inherited a lot of that fearlessness, although I’m not sure if it’s nurture or nature. Most of my childhood was split, either following my father around the world, as he documented Chinese communities, or growing up as one of few Asian-Americans living in small-town Kansas.

I’ve never fit in, and yet this is what makes me able to adapt to most situations and relate to just about anyone. I embrace my eclectic, dissonant past and see beauty in the person those experiences shaped me to be. Now, I’m able to put those skills to good use in the WordPress community and beyond. Regardless of your level of physical ability, your struggles with mental health, your upbringing, and even your run-ins with the law, no one is excluded from carving their place in the WordPress industry.

15 comments

  1. Hi Tyler,

    Thanks for the insightful article and I am definitely related to what you say in the article. I used to be impacted by many other’s opinions, and I often lost my own character while growing up, I often too concerned about others’ opinion on me rather than to embrace the difference of myself. Nowadays I learn to be who I am and embracing the difference, and people are starting to know me as who I am and appreciate unique value I bring to the table.

    • Tyler Lau says:

      Marlon, I noticed your team is from Hong Kong! While I was writing this article I was actually attending the local WordPress Meetups in Lai Chi Kok from December 2019 to January 2020.

      I’ll be back to HK as soon as I can. I would love to meetup.

  2. David says:

    Woah! What a ride man, salute and respect your hustle Tyler :) From tech sales to travel management, you are truly a one man army! Best wishes for your future endeavours!

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