Pull Quote: Success is a life well lived.

Living Well and Enabling Success For Others Through WordPress

From a very young age, I can remember dreaming about a business I would one day own. It would be a restaurant named “The Comfy Chair.” Serving mainly breakfast and light lunch, I pictured a funky space with a mix of unique, comfortable chairs. Patrons could choose the chair that fit their mood of the day.

I’m sorry to report that my childhood dream never came true.

Instead, I now lead a 15-person remote team that develops open source software on WordPress, our primary product is the membership plugin Paid Memberships Pro.

The road that led me to WordPress didn’t begin with a passion for the web, or democratizing publishing, or coding, or anything technology-related.

I began my career in WordPress through my passion for entrepreneurship. A passion to control my earnings, “be my own boss,” and maybe more specifically, work when I want, on what I want, and for the price I choose.

That is the most kickass thing about WordPress—people can enter our community and leverage WordPress for free, from anywhere, anytime, for any reason.

From Craigslist to Plugins

Throughout college, I freelanced doing simple brochure websites, graphic design, and a lot of print work. I used Craigslist and word of mouth to get projects, taking nearly any job that a) paid and b) I could handle on my own or with some help from my “high school sweetheart, husband, co-founder, and best friend” Jason.

After graduation, my parents were cautiously enthusiastic about my decision to start a web design business. I knew I had many months of runway and felt it was a no brainer. Starting a business is a risk. The bigger risk was missing the opportunity to create my own business in the “carefree” days of youth.

Business ownership teaches you a ton—I was learning not just about emerging web technologies like WordPress. I had to learn every aspect of small business: sales and marketing, project scoping, invoicing and accounts receivable, taxes, healthcare…everything.

In Fall 2006, Jason left his job at Accenture and joined me full time. I had my projects and clients, Jason had his. He led the projects that were more development-focused, I led the more design-focused projects.

By 2007, we started doing WordPress sites almost exclusively. WordPress was about four years old at the time. The community was starting to take shape. Meetups and WordCamps were becoming a thing, but the events were very different back then.

I didn’t identify with the early WordPress community. Events were primarily attended by developers and coders, who were primarily male. So I stayed on the periphery of the community.

Jason and I continued operating Stranger Studios as a two-person team. In an agency, there are two main ways to grow revenue: charge more per hour or bill more hours (grow the team). I couldn’t picture myself managing other people. Life and business was good just the way it was. So we regularly raised rates, focused on high value clients, and tried our best not to keep too many clients on maintenance plans.

The WordPress “CMS” helped us increase the number of clients we could serve by giving them more independence in managing their own sites.

Then, life decided to push me into my next chapter with an event that happened when we had our first child, Isaac.

A Building Block For Change

Isaac had a rough start to life 13 years ago and needed surgery a day after his birth. We are endlessly grateful to St. Christopher’s Hospital and The Philadelphia Ronald McDonald House for supporting us through his first two weeks.

And while going through those heartbreaking, chaotic, and hopeful weeks, we still had to work. I remember waiting in our hotel room for Jason to wrap up an urgent call with a client so we could go see our days-old baby. It’s a ridiculous scene to reflect on.

I thought I was living life my way. In reality, I was financially tying myself to a handful of long-term clients. And what’s worse: there was no one to hand things off to when my personal life needed attention.

Consulting work felt like being on call 24/7.

That event changed my life in more ways than I could ever put into words. For the intention of this essay, let’s just say that our business needed to change dramatically, quickly.

When I talk with other entrepreneurs and business owners, we often break down the differences between a services company and a product company. You may have heard a WordPress talk on this very topic: the move from “consulting to products”.

It’s an appealing path for many WordPressers. And now that I’m on the other side of the transition, I can’t deny it is an awesome space to be in—even with the product space going through some major shifts with all the acquisition activity. But that’s a topic for another conversation entirely…

The biggest turning point in my WordPress journey was the decision to create a product. By moving to a product company, I could make more money without working 24 hours a day or (immediately) having to hire people and grow as an agency.

But what kind of product should we build? What untapped market could we serve? What was missing in the WordPress ecosystem?

We found the answer by looking at our history of proposals and projects.

A growing number of our freelance projects had a “membership-type” component. People wanted to protect access to features of their site (content, tools, applications). People wanted to get paid through their WordPress site. More specifically, they wanted to “make money while they sleep” and get paid on a recurring basis. Sell once, get paid over and over again.

Jason and I recognized this trend and the lack of a leading WordPress plugin for memberships. We focused only on freelance projects for “membership-type” sites built on WordPress. These projects helped us bootstrap the development of what is now Paid Memberships Pro.

Open Source Products Are Better Products

I believe in open source. I believe open source products are better products.

We release all of our products with an open source license, just like WordPress. We make our code publicly available on GitHub in a format that removes barriers to collaboration for internal and external contributors. And we make a very good living for ourselves and our team by building a business on top of our open source products.

The decision to be open source has made an overwhelmingly positive impact on the growth of our business. But there’s another major reason why we’ve made it in the WordPress product space.

Paid Memberships Pro is a success in large part because we release the full version for free in the WordPress.org Plugins repository.

Putting my beliefs in OSS aside, the repo makes your plugin available for every WordPress site. That’s 43.1% of websites that exist today. The repo is an amazing resource for every site using WordPress and also for every business building a WordPress product. Not only does the repo facilitate installs and updates, it also builds in a layer of security for WordPress users.

I am deeply grateful for the WordPress community members (the Plugins team) that maintains, reviews, and supports the repository. Without you, I wouldn’t be sitting here today writing an essay about my WordPress journey.

Building a Team That’s Diverse In Many Ways

I’ve always been a woman business owner in a male-dominated field. But I can’t say that my being a woman was something that limited or, on the flip side, catapulted my career forward.

I say this because there are many people in the WordPress community that speak intelligently and openly about important topics like diversity, inclusion, and the serious problem of underrepresentation. I have not devoted enough time to educate myself on their efforts.

But as a person who has interviewed and hired people for a variety of roles, I do have some perspective on the value diversity has brought to our team.

Nearly half of our team are women. And we are diverse in other ways including age, geography, physical ability, and experience.

I value diversity as I value any other positive trait that an employee brings to the table.

When I am interviewing another woman, I recognize that they bring a woman’s perspective to the team, which is valuable. When I am interviewing someone with very little experience, I recognize that I can teach anyone that’s willing to learn and grow, which is valuable. When I am interviewing someone that lives a 20-hour plane ride away, I know that we work remotely and don’t have to overlap for our entire work day.

The diversity in our team has changed my worldview. I have learned endless things about other cultures, such as the troubling issues that a Nigerian mother has faced to find a safe and enriching school for her daughter. I’ve learned about the lasting effects of apartheid in South Africa, about the progess has been made to unify the country and where there is work to be done.

As a parent of “tweens”, I’ve learned valuable lessons from people with adult children. And on the flip side, I’ve shared my stories with people at an earlier stage in the parenting journey.

WordPress is an open, free, accessible tool used by the whole world. Getting involved in WordPress doesn’t require a special form of education, grasp of the English language, or boatloads of money.

I wouldn’t have been able to build a diverse team if the WordPress community, itself, wasn’t diverse.

Live Your Way

Live your life your way. Do more of the things you want. Do less of the things you don’t want.

I am extremely grateful that I am safe, comfortable, and able to live my life, my way. I know that many people are in a place where this type of thinking is not possible.

But even people with everything can have a feeling that something is missing. For me, that feeling is influenced by what other people want for me, when I feel pressure to live out someone else’s dream.

Jason tells me (and others) that my skills are wasted on this product. He boosts me up with encouragement and praise. He says that I am capable of bigger, grander things.

The message I take from this is that I can do anything. So I will do what I want to do. I will do more of the things I like to do, and less of the things I don’t.

In work, that looks like filling senior roles on our team to do things I am currently responsible for. Freeing up my time to nurture the next big product. Or, freeing up my time to spend in ways that my kids need me. Or, I could get another dog.

What I want to leave you with here is that you don’t have to feel pressured to go after someone else’s dream. I’ve watched companies like mine get acquired. Their founders take extended vacations and are living semi-retired lives. I think “is this what I’m supposed to do next?”

Then I join my team on a call and I think “I never want to stop working with these people. This is my family.”

I’ve had opportunities to swing for the fences. To push harder. To get bigger, faster. To be wildly successful.

This is a monetary measure of success. This is feeling successful because other people think you are.

To me, success isn’t measured by dollars or ego. Success is a life well lived. I want to energetically pursue living well. I want to build products that help people find this success. I want to grow a team that has the same freedoms in life that I humbly enjoy.

I want to keep pursuing success with WordPress.

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