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I'm Chris Lema, I'm the CTO of Crowd Favorite, ask me anything.

Nov. 4, 2015

I blog regularly at chrislema.com, speak at conferences, have written some eBooks, and coached entrepreneurs for more than ten years. I've also managed software developers for over twenty years, and built (and sold) several startups.

22 votes   Flag
David Bisset

Is Crowd Favorite hiring? #NotA10upJoke But seriously what qualities does Crowd Favorite look for, especially if they are looking for talents and skills mostly found in the WordPress community?

There are many people - especially freelancers - that have design and/or development skills making it on their own. If you had to give only one or two quick tips to help them market themselves, what would they be?

Elliot (Raison)

At WCEU this year Matt said "Skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it is". Where do you see the puck heading for WordPress. What opportunities do you think will open up in the next 5 to 10 years?

Chris Lema

I think we'll see growth at the very bottom of the ecosystem - helping brand new people set up and run their small sites on WordPress (which is why we see such growth at marketplaces like Envato's). And I think we'll see growth at the very top of the ecosystem (with more large brands beyond newspaper sites). The lower sector growth will likely happen faster. But the top growth will drive a lot of cascading effects.

So I think organizations that focus on training, on all-in-one hosting (with plugins and themes already together), and ease of use (page builders) will all see some growth from the growing edges where people are still learning about WordPress.

But I also think some companies will leverage WordPress, along with other technologies, to push WordPress into other government sectors, and large/strong verticals.

Vladimir Prelovac

Chris, you are one of the smartest, most eloquent business thinkers I've ever met. What else does it takes for one to become a billionaire?

Chris Lema

Thanks Vladimir.

I think many others have written the books on becoming billionaires. And it's different in different vertical markets. Being a billionaire in commercial real estate is likely easier (because of deal size) than in residential real estate, and that's easier than selling $5 software plugins, right?

I'll be honest - when it comes to software - I'm not sure any of the billionaires can give you the recipe. I don't think they all predicted the success they were going to have. At least if you ask many of them quietly.

I've been part of software projects that take off and allow us to sell a company very quickly, and others that slowly grew and never really reached their potential. They both felt exactly the same when it comes to the day to day work. The success was more about the market reaction rather than what we were doing inside.

That's kind of depressing, because I think we all like to think we're the masters of our own destinies, but I don't think that's as much the reality as we want it to be - even when we're talking about millionaires, or simply successful people.

Here's the good news. If you spend less than you earn, and stay out of debt, you'll always feel like a billionaire.

Chris Lema

When I look to hire people, I'm looking for several things - not all of them talents or skills easily found anywhere, whether it's in the WordPress community or not. To be clear, knowing WordPress is great. But smart people who know how to learn will pick it up if they don't know it.

At Crowd Favorite, we work with some large organizations. And we have a high value, based on the CEO's backstory, on account management. So understanding how to work with large organizations is a big plus. The pressure, the sensitivities, the politics, and the deadlines - those are all things that may differ from building a website for a small business.

A lot of what we do is what I call "heavy lifting" - which translates to writing integration code into an organization's back office software. So that means integrating with Oracle Financials, Peoplesoft, Microsoft Sharepoint. Basically, code that a lot of people may not have experience with, or may not want to do. It's not sexy. But it's essential when working with large brands that need all their systems to talk to each other.

So what I look for, beyond a history of some of these experiences, is a demonstrated ability to learn, a value for ownership/accountability, demonstrated effectiveness in coaching / training others, a curiosity that drives experimentation, and of course some magic super power that most people don't know they have. It's never the same for each person, but if I find it, and want/need it, I try really hard to bring it into the company.

As for freelancers marketing themselves, my consistent recommendations are these two things:
- Specialize. Don't try to do it all. Just design websites, don't also development and host them. Or just develop them. But pick.
- Learn the business of your customers. Another form of specialization is to focus on a market segment. So just do real estate sites, or just do band sites, or something of that nature. It makes it easy for folks to recommend you.

David Bisset

Thanks Chris! Very well put and specialization I agree is important.

JazzFan Junkie

Which would you rather fight: one horse-sized duck, or 100 duck-sized horses?

Chris Lema

Pretty sure Bill Murray answered this already. Right?

100 anythings seem chaotic. I'd likely choose 1 large duck. It would be work, but the attacks would come from only one direction, and that seems more plausible in terms of winning.

Ross Johnson

You started in the WordPress space primarily giving business advice to WordPress entrepreneurs and freelancers. Given what I know of your background in business and software you could have picked any tech/software industry to join and been well received. I'm sure the Drupal community could use business advice just as much as the WordPress community.

So why did you want to join and participate in the WordPress community?

Chris Lema

I could have picked any software space, that's true. But I'd already spent years working with WordPress on my own (outside of any community). So that removed another variable from the equation. Had I tried to enter the Drupal community, it would have meant learning Drupal well. I'd created tons of WordPress sites by the time I wrote my first blog post comparing plugins or advice for freelancers. I'd used and hacked Gravity Forms, built large membership systems, and done a lot with it before I stepped into the community. That's why it made it an easy choice.

Steven Muncy

I was just on a board discussing static site generators v WP. Any thoughts?

Chris Lema

Here's the thing - for small sites without ecommerce or membership/gated content - WP and static sites are basically the same if you have the right setup. If your host caches all your pages, there's really no hitting the database at all, and performance should match. The problem is that people compare poorly hosted WordPress sites, or those that don't use any number of caching technologies, with static sites. Sure, static will be faster, you've eliminated costly calls to the database.

But if you're looking at varnish (reverse proxy) and memcache / redis (cache) configurations in your environment, you might see really fast load times of your WordPress site.

Mark Jaquith gave a presentation on hosting that you might like: europe.wordcamp.org/2014/mark-jaquith-next-generation-wordpress-hosting-stack/

Steven Muncy

Thanks, Chris.

Is there any movement (or reason) to move away from MySQL toward a flat file/text based system?

Chris Lema

I don't know about movements, per se. But everyone wants fast sites. So I'm sure people will try everything they can think of. Until they discover what works and what doesn't. MySQL works great for stuff you need it for. But it's overkill for stuff you don't. That's why I think people have moved strongly towards caching technology, because a lot of sites don't change much, so those db hits are kind of expensive for the benefits they bring.

Jonathan Wold

Chris - I just finished your interview with Brian Krogsgard in August of last year (poststatus.com/chris-lema-interview/). I thoroughly enjoyed the interview and found the timing of you doing an AMA quite fortuitous! So here I am with questions : ).

First question - How has your first year working "full time" in the community been? What's been great about it? What's been challenging?

Next, with your focus now on WordPress at the enterprise level:

1. What is your current analysis of the enterprise market for WordPress? (i.e. What are the pain points? Where are the growth opportunities?)

2. What is Crowd Favorite's vision for positioning itself within the enterprise market and how do you see it getting there? (I noticed, for example, that you don't position yourself as a development shop or design agency but a strategic business partner)

3. What are the gaps you've observed at the service provider level? (i.e. What are agencies doing now that they shouldn't be doing or vice versa?)

Near the end of the interview you offered several predictions on where the ecosystem is going. To paraphase:

- You predicted that we'd see more collaboration at the enterprise level as organizations begin seeing each other less as competitors and begin looking at the bigger picture.

- You predicted that we'd see more providers in the WordPress ecosystem moving beyond their core offerings to serve the market in other ways. You cited iThemes as a great example where they moved from themes all the way to SaaS products today.

- You predicted that there will be more movement towards an "all in one" type of solution where there will be more players in the space like Rainmaker who provide everything at once. You said you wouldn't be surprised to see managed hosting companies start offering more (i.e. Flywheel adding DIY design services).

In my mind your predictions demonstrate sound insight into the "big picture" of the ecosystem and as I look back a year later I count progress on all those fronts. With those predictions in context then here are my follow-up questions:

1. What opportunities for collaboration do you see today for service providers working with enterprise? What is Crowd Favorite interested in participating in?

2. What are your predictions for WordPress in the enterprise for the next year and the next 3-5 years?

3. What predictions do you have to offer for the WordPress ecosystem overall in the coming year?

Steve Styx

Hey Chris, I follow your stuff all the time! :)

I would like your opinion on this...

After doing client projects for years, I'm thinking about starting a WordPress theme selling business.

For someone who's just starting selling themes, and would rather sell them on his own site than on famous marketplaces like Themeforest, what would be your best marketing strategy in this case, since I believe marketing is the hardest thing if you're doing it on your own? Do you think you can share some marketing tips for selling themes on your own? :)
Maybe create a free theme, and offer premium option? Is that a good idea?

Also, in same scenario, do you believe that it's better to do niche or multipurpose themes if you're selling them and market them by yourself? What do you think is easier to market nowdays?

Thanks Chris,

Chris Lema

Hi Steve,

I wrote about some of this here (as part of a series): chrislema.com/wordpress-theme-vendors-sell/

If you don't have an audience at all, you may want to leverage the benefits of a marketplace like Envato's. But your challenge there will be differentiation. So I recommend it with caveats. Because if you already have a bit of an audience, or if it's easier to find the audience via SEO than to differentiate among others at Envato, you may want to run it on your own site.

Selling a theme for lawyers, for example, is one thing on your own site - because you have to demonstrate you really, seriously, really really, know what they're up to. You need to speak their language and be committed to them. On the other hand, if you sell on Envato, you're competing with themes that have 14 sliders, 12 page builders, 3 commercial plugins, and more. Harder to stand out.

My advice, both for selling your own themes and for service businesses, is what I wrote about above - learn the business that you're selling to. If you're selling to Real Estate agents, don't just learn WordPress, don't just learn how to connect to their database of listings. Learn how to parse that data so that they can specialize in a single neighborhood and how a content strategy can help them. Learn how to help them get better leads (FB ads? something else?).

When you're focused on helping a customer win at business, they're more inclined to hire you. When you're focused on being a service provider (selling services or a theme), you're just a vendor. And being a vendor is hard work with little upside.

Lastly, niche all the way.

Chris Lema

My first year has been fun at Crowd Favorite.

My favorite parts have been the optimization challenges I've worked thru, to drive utilization and project profitability up, because there are no secret formulas. Just a lot of hypothesis testing. And the other part has been assembling a great team. We've added some stellar folks to the team and they're doing amazing things.

You can read my post about it here: chrislema.com/365-days-crowd-favorite/

As for your first three questions. Here is my take.

1. Enterprises will continue to need compliance and regulatory support - which means a different level of data persistence and audit logs. They'll continue to need workflow for publishing, etc. And they'll always need support for high performance and scale.

2. Our goal is to compete with E&Y, not with web development shops, with IBM Global Services, not with design agencies. And we have. But we're at the start of it. It's why we do a lot of deep integration with backoffice software, rather than just web sites.

3. One of the gaps I regularly see, which we're trying to address, is the need for account management services - not just technical team leads or project managers. We push for three roles to interface with the customer, not just those two. And I think, depending on the market segment you're serving, that it's critical.

To your other three questions:

1. I know this summer Crowd Favorite execs met with several other agencies to talk about collaboration to work with more enterprises. This included Human Made, WebDev, 10up, and Modern Tribe. We consider all of them to be collaborators in helping move WordPress up market.

2. I think we need to see several non-newpaper/media sites running on WordPress to help others understand it's not just blog software. We say it's not. But the largest sites we point to are often really nice looking and even rich editorial workflow sites that all are fancy blogs. So as a community, we need to show high performing eCommerce, high performing membership sites, and more. Once you see that, I think you'll see the potential for greater adoption.

3. As everyone tries to move upmarket, never forget that there's serious opportunity downmarket. That's where tons of growth will continue to happen - education, training, self-service, etc. Innovation needs to keep happening down there too.

Jonathan Wold

Thanks for your responses, Chris!

Charlie Livingston

Hi Chris,

What do you think of the current state of the themes market, particularly the dominance of multipurpose themes? Is this a welcome trend? Why/why not? How long will it last? If you were in the business of selling themes, what would you be doing in this climate?

Chris Lema

I think the theme market is in an incredible place really ready for some innovation - because of what's coming available with the REST API that so many people are talking about. Realize that once it's rolled out and available, it will potentially change what we consider to be a theme. It will change how we write themes. It could change how they perform, because of how they could be architected.

But that's not what you were asking about. You were asking about multipurpose themes. And in that realm, I don't think you'll see a lot that changes. Not because of WordPress but because of the user.

The user wants options. The user wants efficacy of the dollars they spend. Those things never change.

So if they can pick a theme that promises to do everything they want today, plus tomorrow, and even next year - why wouldn't customers buy that promise.

Now, the real question is why other theme providers aren't evaluating that market and finding ways to promise the same thing (the core business need) without creating bloatware. Seems like that would be where they'd want to go.

Instead, most theme developers who compete against the multipupose theme talk about how lightweight their code is. That's like when I go to buy a dining room table, the guy selling it talks about the tools he used to create it. Or the kind of grain that was used.

Seriously, most developers look from the inside out instead of the outside in. They really ought to think about how they buy the things they buy and realize what wins them over.

Hopefully that makes sense...

Charlie Livingston

Great answer, got me thinking, thanks!

Ryan Love

Hey Chris, thanks so much for doing this!

I've got two questions for you,

- What's been the biggest challenge you faced in the last 6 months and how have you worked your way through it?

- Who would you like to see on here in a future AMA?

Chris Lema

The biggest challenge I've faced in the last 6 months is, and will likely always be, communicating about prioritization of work.

Let me explain. Whenever you run any team, group or company, there will always be a lot of things that are sub-optimal. Even if you're a funded company with millions in the bank. For one of our startups we raised three rounds of 50 million each, and each time, this was still true. Tons of work to do.

But 95% of the items on the list of things to change won't be in the top 5% of the things you need to change. Read that again, it may be my most brilliant sentence ever. :)

My point is, what that means is that 95% of the time, the people who bring you things that are sub-optimal that they want to change, 95% of the time - those things will not be in your list of what you're working on. And communicating that, in an empathetic way, in a consistent manner, in a way that helps others get on board with solving the 5% - that's the hard work.

Unfortunately, solving it is always a matter of consistent communication and bringing people on board to "get" it.

Who would I like to see in a future AMA? If you haven't already had Syed Balkhi on here, you need to.

Ryan Love

Thanks for the answer.

And agreed with Syed. I actually sent him an email a while back, but I'm sure his inbox is pretty full! But I'll try a follow up.

Nemanja Aleksic

WordPress is becoming a well developed market. How does one penetrate the segments that are pretty well covered, if you cannot stand out neither with pricing nor with the product? Is there room for everyone?

Chris Lema

WordPress is still tiny and small. I think you likely mean that the "insider" market feels crowded.

Let's do a simple exercise to see what I mean. We power, with WordPress, something like 25% of the top 1 million websites on the planet, right?

So that means there are 250,000 sites using WordPress, right? And when we talk to the people around us, everyone already has a forms plugin, right? I mean, everyone uses Gravity Forms, right? (I know this isn't true, but go with me here). In our "insider" market, that's a space that's taken up (most people wondered why Ninja Forms would even go there). So let's say that 50% of the sites are using it. And that's conservative because if you go to a WordCamp you might feel like the number should be 80%. And the midpoint price is $99.

So the forms space should generate them 99*.5*250,000 - which is more than I think they'll generating.

My point isn't to suggest anything except that what we normally think is a closed and over-developed space isn't really the case. There is always room for competitors.

The trick? Stop selling the same product to the same people. It's a bad way to differentiate yourself.

Want to get into the forms business? Someone should build a Hippa-compliant, privacy-related, hosted form solution that integrates well with WordPress. It's a niche market but they'll likely pay way more than $99 a year.

Ross Johnson

What are larger WordPress based product / services companies doing that the smaller ones aren't? I see lots of smaller 1 - 3 people companies struggling to grow where others have no problem supporting 25 - 50 employees.

Chris Lema

I'm not sure anyone has NO problems supporting 25-50 employees. But I bet it looks like that from the outside. My general take is that a 1 person company is easier than a 3 person company, and a 3 person company is easier than a 15 person company, and a 15 person company is easier than a 50 person company. The problems get exponentially different and harder. It's not a simple scaling exercise.

That said, I don't think you can ever get too far away from culture when it comes to keeping 10-50 people motivated to sticking around during the growth phase. Loyalty, commitment, creativity, sacrifice - these things are required, and you see them happen, and employees stick in, because of the culture that's been created around them.

That, of course, doesn't exactly answer what's different between a 1-3 person company and a 25-50 person company. I think there are several ways you might answer this.

1. Some of the bigger companies have gone up market to larger projects or larger companies buying their offerings. This may offer greater profit margin or larger efforts that guarantee longer ability to keep people employed (at lower risks).

2. Some of the product companies that have grown, have done so very slowly over a long period of time - sacrificing tremendously to get to the point where they could grow. In that dynamic, the growth looks overnight, but it's been a longer process than most know.

3. Another strategy some companies use, especially when growing remotely, is to leverage the benefit of different costs of living in different parts of the world. That can translate to larger teams and lower prices.

But what's true of all of them, is that they were willing to deal with the headaches and pain associated with that growth. Sometimes it means your performance lags or your product release cycles slow down. Sometimes it means customers complain. Sometimes it means you're up all day and all night, coordinating staff across the globe.

Whatever the cost, I know several 1-3 person companies who might look on those challenges and say, "no thank you."

Milos Vujnovic

Hey Chris,

thanks for doing this AMA. What are your thoughts regarding licencing WordPress SaaS solutions? Does this raise an issue with GPL? I have noticed that lots of current WP SaaS haven't included any info regarding that.


Chris Lema

SaaS solutions are the best. But I'm biased. Because I've been building SaaS solutions since 1995 - seriously. We've called it many things, but hosted software in the browser in a multi-tenant solution is the way to go.

The dynamics with GPL are a bit different, since the plugins that connect to SaaS solutions need to be GPL, but the services themselves don't have to be. Some still are. But there's no requirement.

I have a feeling we'll see more SaaS solutions appear, not less. And they'll bake their secret sauce (like Akismet's eval of spam) in the cloud, rather than on a local site.

Ahmad Awais

Hey Chris,

Thanks for doing this AMA. Some of my questions

— After spending a year at CF how does a regular day looks like in your life?
— How would you call CF different from other agencies from an "outside-in" perspective for people who intend to apply/join?
— I may be wrong, but I have seen that CF's job postings always point to the careers page instead of explaining what a particular role might look like (like other agencies do), why is that?
— Why do you think only a few SaaS WP implementations are out there? (Most of them are related to Hosting!)


Chris Lema

Each day at Crowd Favorite has a natural rhythm to it. My mornings are filled with several daily meetings - a call with my senior developers, a call with my project managers, and a call with our exec team. I then have openings mid-morning (before lunch) for client calls. These are key "fresh" hours to have those meetings.

My afternoons are filled with work. Writing. Decision making. And all the regular stuff that comes with managing my teams.

Crowd Favorite isn't all that different from other agencies when it comes to people who are applying. I think we're all looking for people who work hard, are constant learners, and have demonstrated experience.

I think our job postings are rather generic because most of my hiring is driven by recruiting. After all, really great people are likely already working. They're busy doing work. So I normally go out looking for people.

That said, we've definitely hired people I don't know. In many roles. But in dev roles, if I'm hiring a stranger, it's a much longer process because I like to take my time.

SaaS is still relatively new to WP, so I think we'll see more over time. I think people have to figure out what it looks like to do it well, and I think we're just early in that process.

Matt Pritchett

What are some of the challenges you see when developers attempt to make the transition to managing developers?

If you are the sum of the five people you spend the most time with, who are you becoming?

What are you reading right now?

Chris Lema

Managing developers and being a developer are two different careers. They're not remotely similar.

And being good at one doesn't necessarily make you good at the other. I was very comfortable with databases, engines and architectural patterns, but horrible about semi-colons. On the other hand, I manage software engineers much more effectively than I ever wrote code.

So maybe the first mistake is thinking that they're related or that the transition isn't ridiculously difficult. It's like going from being a waiter to a football player. Or from being an athletic trainer to being a fireman. Just not anything like it.

So step one is realizing that. Step two, much like parenting, most people don't actually spend a lot of time preparing to lead others. That's a second big mistake.

The last thing I'd point out is that writing code has a natural end, and therefore, success. Your code compiles. Your client runs it in their environment, and it works. Success. Leading people is nothing like that. There often isn't an end, and it's rare to see a short feedback loop. I often hear years later that someone is thankful for a particular decision I made.

If I am the sum of the five people I spend the most time with, I'm likely becoming:
- Syed Balkhi
- Steve Zehngut
- Cory Miller
- Karim Marucchi
- Melissa Lema

As for what I'm reading right now, here's my list (I'm always reading more than one book at a time):
- Applied Minds: How engineers think
- Axiom: Powerful leadership proverbs
- Simple Rules: How to thrive in a complex world
- Learn or Die: Using science to build a leading-edge learning organization

I recommend them all.

Chris Lema

This was fun folks. Thanks a bunch. Take care!