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I'm Matt Danner, Chief Operating Officer at iThemes, ask me anything!

Nov. 24, 2015

I work at iThemes, where we make software that helps make people’s lives awesome. I manage our developer, support, and sales teams as well as running the day to day operations of the company. My job is to put out fires before anyone else knows they’re burning (it’s easier when you’re the one that starts most of the fires).

My wife and I live in Oklahoma City, where the wind comes sweeping down the plains. We both love whiskey, and are particularly fond of the Scottish varieties. Outside the office, I work with wood, fly remote control quadcopters, and am an active archer and hunter. Ask me anything.

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31 vote   Flag
Nemanja Aleksic

Thanks for the AMA, Matt!

I always wondered how bad the plain text password breach last year affected your business, if at all?

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Matt Danner

Hey Nemanja -

Thanks for stopping by. I hope no one takes this answer the wrong way, but in hindsight, us getting hacked last year has only made us stronger. We learned a lot of hard lessons at a time when we really needed to learn them. If I could go back in time and take it back, of course I would. But only because of our customers. Because of that incident, we have a stronger security plan in place than we ever would have had, and our team went through a trial by fire and came out hardened and bonded together.

A lot of people don’t know that early on at iThemes, we had another very serious incident. Someone (ok, me) ran a bad command on one of our servers and wiped the whole thing out, including a bunch of client sites and data. Long story short, we came through that trial with a product called BackupBuddy. I guess the point is that no one wants to go through these bad times, but what’s important is to come through them better than before. If we can do that, it’s all worth it.

mattdanner.net/why-you-need-a-wordpress-backup/

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Matt Pritchett

Do you and Cory consider yourselves opposites that meet the others weaknesses or are you more similar and fill team roles to fit those areas?

What's the most challenging part of daily operations management?

What's the coolest thing you've ever made while woodworking?

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Matt Danner

Hey Matt!

Cory and I are definitely opposites who complement each other’s weaknesses. I always say that it’s Cory’s job to be looking in to the future, planning what’s next, and seeing the possibilities and hardships ahead. It’s my job to look at right here, right now. If Cory says he wants to take the ship to X, it’s my job to get the ship there in one piece. We are very very different, but we work very very well together. I fully trust him, and I believe he fully trusts me.

I think without a doubt the most challenging thing about operations is also the most rewarding. The people. People make for the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. We celebrate huge wins with our team. But as with any business, there are sometimes when expectations aren’t met or things aren’t working and you have to have hard conversations with people. It’s the only real drawback to our team-as-family culture here. I lose sleep over it. But at the end of the day, we’re a part of something that’s bigger than any one of us, and Cory and I are tasked with protecting that. I

The latest thing I’ve made is always my favorite. I love working at the lathe. Bowls are my favorite. I recently started making some wood signs, and that’s been a lot of fun too. Last night I started carving a spoon from some trees I cut off our place in New Mexico, and a salt cellar from a great piece of spalted maple. A few examples below.
(www.instagram.com/p/9sIXUnDFrE/, www.instagram.com/p/9MzS6tDFnh/, www.instagram.com/p/a-5WJ/, www.instagram.com/p/a-0Yv/ )

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Pippin Williamson

What's the most important activity or event of your daily work routine?

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Matt Danner

Walking from my desk to the coffee maker 37 times.

Second to that, probably keeping in touch with our remote and local team members. I want to free devs up to dev, support team to support, etc. Keeping in touch with them regularly lets me see where people are getting hung up. That's where policy and process changes come from. Or sometimes just helping someone re prioritize. If a support team member is hung up for an hour because there's a problem with Zendesk, that needs to become my problem. My job is to try to smooth out the path ahead of the team so they can do what they're freaking awesome at.

The real trick is trying to keep in regular touch with everyone without bogging them down and distracting them. I'm probably a distraction more often that I'd like to admit.

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Ahmad Awais

Hey Matt,

Thanks for doing this. Three questions!

— What do you look for in a developer before hiring him for a remote position?
— The fact that a developer applied for a position and a developer that you yourself approached to recruit, does it affect how well they are compensated?
— What's your take on REST API and Calypso?

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Matt Danner

Hey Ahmad -

It's taken me some time to learn about hiring remote developers. That's probably because we got so lucky on our first try, and through we were good at it rather than lucky. But through some tougher experiences, we've stepped back and tried to identify what makes the great remote devs so great:

First, they are excellent communicators. I don't have to go chasing them down to know what's happening on their projects, they make it part of their process to keep me and others in the loop. Second, they have to be autonomous. I can't (and don't want to) chase everyone down and make sure they're staying on track. They can't run every priority or decision by me or another team member before they do it. They've got to be able to look at the big picture and make a call. Third, I think it's really important that they have a defined plan for how they'll work remotely. It doesn't have to be the same space every day, but they should have a place that they can count on. They also need to set good boundaries for when they're working and when they're not.

No, compensation isn't based on how a person got in our funnel. Compensation is based on budget, need, and abilities.

There are people that are way more qualified to talk about both of these things than I am, but I'll take a crack at it. The REST API is huge. First WordPress was a blogging platform. Then it was a full blown CMS. The REST API makes it both of those, as well as a platform for building applications. This API is definitely the future of innovation in WordPress.

It's exciting to see something like Calypso coming to be. It's new, and has a long way to grow, but that's an exciting place to see a new project. It'll be very interesting to see how this new way to use WordPress develops, and what ideas and projects come from seeing thought leaders like Automattic build Calypso.

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Ahmad Awais

Thanks for the answers :)

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Brad Williams

Given that iThemes is a plugin shop (maybe more so) than a theme shop, have you discussed changing your company name?

I'm sure it would be a very tough decision given your history and brand recognition, but might also open the door to more verticals with less confusion. Just curious! :)

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Matt Danner

So, when we released BackupBuddy (which wasn't technically our first plugin, but it was definitely when we started shifting from a theme shop to a plugin shop) we released it under a new brand we called PluginBuddy. For the first year or so, all the plugins we released were under that brand. What we found was that it caused a lot of market confusion, and the vast majority of people we met still referred to "BackupBuddy by iThemes".

iThemes is who we are. I don't think we'll ever get away from that, and that's ok with me.

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LSW

Hi Matt -

Thanks for taking time out of your busy schedule to do this AMA - - not sure whose idea it was, but whoever decided to recommend you for this is obviously a brilliant visionary!

Couple of Q's for you:

1. As COO, I'm curious about your thoughts on iThemes biggest hurdles, and how you overcame them, as your employee count grew and grew? Where did you start? How many employees do you have now? What were/are your top 3 biggest growth hurdles and how did you overcome them?

2. Do you use remote workers and what is your overall stance on that?

3. I've always adored your shoe collection. Can we see a photo of the shoes you're wearing today?


You're awesome - thanks!

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Ryan Love

lol - Hat tip to Lisa!

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Matt Danner

Hey Lisa -

Happy to take the time, thanks for coming to ask questions. managewp.org/articles/10901/i-m-lisa-sabin-wilson-co-owner-of-webdevstudios-ask-me-anything

1. First of all, your 1st question is like 7 questions… so I will treat them as such.
1a. Our biggest hurdle as we grew was continuing to add new people with their own traits, skills, and ideas but still keeping the true culture of iThemes as a whole. Every person adds something unique, and we want that. We also want who we are at our core to never change.
1b. We started with 1, Cory Miller.
1c. I think we are up to about 25 these days.
1d. One of the biggest has been find a balance between our remote team and our in-office team. Just by virtue of proximity, our in office team gets to do a lot of fun things and bond together. We eat lunch at the same table, we play video games together, we go to the zoo and have parties at each other’s houses. One of the biggest things we did to overcome the gap was using chat rooms. It sounds simple, but when we started we were just using Google Talk for all internal talk. 1 to 1 chat is great, but having rooms is so much better. Everything from banter to business happens in a series of hipchat rooms, and it definitely helps keep us all better connected.

2. Yes, almost half our team is remote. As much as I love having the team here in the office together every day, it’s just not practical. We couldn’t have some of the amazing talent on our team if it weren’t for remote work. I do think we face some unique challenges as a combination co-located/remote team. See section 1d.

3. I don’t wear tennis shoes often, but I did today. NB 574s: www.dropbox.com/s/hxuguoj0wxrdvx0/IMG_5395.JPG?dl=0 My preferred footwear can be seen here: www.instagram.com/p/y8cDYKjFq2/

On a personal note: Lisa, you’re one of my absolute best friends professionally and personally. Thanks for what you’ve meant to my life. Sorry I short changed some of your answers…

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LSW

You have some of the best shoes in the community - they needed to be shared :) thank you for doing so!

Also, thanks for your answers - - I don't feel short changed at all. Any insight into how successful companies work - - and how the successful people behind them navigate that and make them work, is valuable info to anyone. iThemes has built an amazing company - not only of products, but of the people that make it happen. I know that you have been an integral part of that success, so thank you for sharing, Matt.

As far as friendships go - I'll always have your six, Danner. Whenever, wherever - - give my love to McKalyn!

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Ryan Love

Hey Matt, Thanks so much for doing this, already some brilliant q+a's.

I'm going to be greedy and ask a couple of questions (and by a couple i mean four...) hope that's O.K!

- How do you guys balance having multiple, time consuming projects all at the same time?

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

- Please share a pic of your workspace!

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

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Matt Danner

Hey Ryan -

Thank you so much for having me. These AMAs are really cool, and you do a great job hosting them.

- It all comes back to the team, honestly. Each project has a team lead who is passionate and protective of their project. They enable Cory and me to step back and help juggle all that's going on. Without the iThemes team, I can tell you we wouldn't be doing any of this.

- One of the biggest challenges I think I've faced over the last 6 months and even the last year has been hitting a plateau with my professional growth. I managed to find a really comfortable rhythm and put things on auto-pilot at times. I think we all need seasons like that, but I think I let mine go for too long. If I'm just as good this year as I was last year, I've failed myself and my team. Even if I'm doing the exact same job, I want to get better at it all the time. Cory really helped me get out of the slump. One of those ways was pushing me to take on new challenges. We overhauled our support system this year, and that was a huge project to take on. Just digging in to something new really spurred me on. Another way was getting me to new conferences outside of WordPress. I went to BIF2015 this year and found tons of inspiration. Next month after WordCamp US I'll be doing some other training that's totally outside WordPress. I think mixing those things up has really helped me dig back in and find new challenges.

- www.dropbox.com/s/n60bviauwamfwni/IMG_5396.JPG?dl=0 It's a huge mess right now. Our team was decorated my whiteboard with messages while I was out of town for boss's day, and I may never take that down.

- Since COO LSW recommended me, I'll keep the COO train rolling. I think everyone would get a TON of benefit from asking Jason Rosenbaum of Crowd Favorite some questions. That guy is seriously brilliant.

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Robby McCullough

Hey Matt! Thanks for doing this AMA. =)

What are some of the internal tools you guys are using to manage iThemes? That is, your tools for communication, development, accounting, metrics, etc?

Also, I know you guys are big on culture over there, how do you maintain and encourage company culture for remote employees? Thanks!

(+1 for Jason Rosenbaum, too!!)

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Matt Danner

Hey Robby -

We use so many different tools. I just tried listing them by category, but I think a list with short explanations is easier.

Hipchat - we live and breathe here. Every product has its own room, plus separate support rooms, marketing rooms, shit talk rooms, etc. Hipchat was a game changer for us.

Trello - when someone says to go to your happy place, I go to Trello. Every project in the company has at least one board. Personally my wife and I even use it for grocery shopping and completely planned our wedding on Trello.

Bitbucket - I know, I know... it's not github. But there were some things about bitbucket that drew us to it, and I don't regret it (most of the time). We have lots of custom integrations for our devs to help make life easier.

Modified P2 blog - built on iThemes Builder. Mostly used for FYIs to the whole team and our iThemes Standard Operating Procedures.

Paycom - We no longer do payroll in house, and that was the best decision ever. They take care of all our out of state details as well.

Zendesk - Customer support. Gives our support team a great tool to communicate, make customer notes, and get help from developers.

Steam - Not so much a "management tool" as it is a gaming platform that we use to play video games at lunch.... #rocketleague

I'm sure there's others, but these stand out as essential to me.

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Matt Danner

I totally forgot about part 2 of your question.

We try to see the remote team as often as possible. Sometimes that means bringing them in to the office, sometimes that means traveling to a WordCamp or event together. I think in-person time with remote team is key to our culture. The last 2 years we've brought in almost the entire team for WordCamp DFW and end up having a great time together. We may or may not have had an unofficial Snapchat track going in the hall last year...

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Robby McCullough

Thanks for the answers! =)

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