Aaron: [00:02] Thank you for listening to the WP Square One podcast. I am Aaron, and unfortunately, Micah is out for today. Maybe I’ll be able to swing it.
[00:13] I have a developer here; his name is Rich, and he is an all-around WordPress product guy with eight years of experience in the field. Among other things, he has side-gigs and he builds WordPress themes for professionals at ThemeBeans—we’ll get you some links later—and just launched CoBlock, a suite of content marketing blocks for Gutenberg, which Gutenberg is all the rage right now. But here’s Rich. How are you doing, Rich?
Rich: [00:50] Doing pretty good Aaron, yourself?
Aaron: [00:53] I am doing fine. Did I do okay on the introduction? Anything you want to add?
Rich: [00:59] That was awesome.
Aaron: [01:01] All right. I can do this without Micah, so that’s good. Anyway, I’m glad we have you here. I know you and I have met at WordCamp Atlanta. You have the developer background, but also a designer background, so that’ll be interesting to discuss because I kind of came from the design world and was almost forced into development. Tell us a little about what you do for a living.
Rich: [01:35] Yeah. So, I mostly build WordPress products. I specialized originally in themes and kind of jumped on that bandwagon early, right where it was going to be really successful and everything was really easy to get out there and go in. Since then, I still do themes pretty regularly, but I’m also starting to dive into more plugin territory, especially with Gutenberg coming around the corner. I think that there’s just tons of opportunity there. So that’s where I’ve started to pivot a little bit, but the product space is where I landed. I just enjoy it so much.
Aaron: [02:13] Nice. That’s cool. What year did you start building themes?
Rich: [02:20] 2010 and 2011 is when I got my start.
Aaron: [02:25] Yeah, relatively early then.
Rich: [02:27] Yeah. My first couple of themes, I didn’t even really code them. I just designed them. I just paid someone to help me code them and then I started learning how to do stuff. I started simple with like the widgets and then you move into the menus. I started being able to move stuff and put stuff where I want it and then eventually got to the point where I was like “I really need to know what I’m doing,” because people are paying me lots of money and I had no idea what I was doing.
Aaron: [02:49] Nice. That’s interesting. So, when you— Was it 2011 or so? Did you start a company at that point or was it just like freelance type stuff?
Rich: [03:03] Yeah, it was more just “put it up there, see if someone buys it” kind of stuff. It wasn’t really company-oriented at the time. And then when it started to grow— And back then in 2011, theme shops grew really rapidly. Your first couple of days, you’re already getting a couple thousand dollars if you have a winner on your hands. Nowadays, it’s like a couple hundred if you’re doing really awesome. So, back then, I started off more freelance style, but then quickly grew into establishing a small team, really small team, and then just kind of pumping them out at that point.
Aaron: [03:41] That’s cool. Yeah. I have a hacked a theme in 2009 or so, 2010, and I didn’t know what I was doing, but that’s how I got into the business. I was doing design and then I needed some functionality, and I think that’s how most people got into WordPress is that clients needed stuff, so started hacking at themes and whatnot.
[04:14] Have you ever listed your stuff on Envato and that type of stuff? Or have you had things on your own site?
Rich: [04:23] Yeah. When I first started, ThemeForest is where to go. That was the place. I listed most of my stuff on ThemeForest. Over like the last three or so years, I went non-exclusive and opened up my own shop formally and started putting a lot of my stuff there. And then, sometimes I would upload them to ThemeForest—Creative Market is another one—but those markets are really difficult because you’re competing against thousands of other authors at the same time. A lot of the types of themes that I like to build are not necessarily that market fit. Those kinds of folks looking for themes, a lot of them are looking for the one theme, ‘to rule theme all’ theme, and I just don’t do that.
Aaron: [05:10] What makes your themes different as far as— Because I think I had the same type of mindset. I don’t think a theme should do everything. It shouldn’t have eight custom posts and stuff like that. So, what do you do differently?
Rich: [05:30] I really try to focus on the end user experience and find ways to make the theme the easiest, but also the most simple but also simple to you, but it’s complex behind the scenes. And that it does what you want it to do without you having to think about it. That sort of mentality has pushed my themes up, big time, against the competition. And then comparing that with my design background, I really feel I just hit a really good spot that I like to sit in and just keep pushing the boundaries.
[06:04] Recently I developed a Merlin WP. It’s like an onboarding wizard for themes. It’s pretty intense. But what it is, is it’s like– you know how WooCommerce has it’s Getting Started pages. It’s kind of like that but for your theme setup, like where you can generate a child theme within the wizard and it goes ahead and applies it to your theme. And then you can set your different options if you want to within that or even install your plugins using TGMPA. It kind of walks you through that process. So then at the end of it, if you install the demo data and you hit ‘view my website,’ it looks just like the theme demo did if you want it to. Or you can just disregard all of that and just say, “No, don’t ever see it again.”
[06:43] I kind of build those kinds of things so that the themes are super simple and easy to work with. And I try my best to make sure that they all work together. So when you switch a theme to another theme, everything kind of ports over. So, that way, people are more likely to come back and use my themes.
Aaron: [07:00] Nice. I like that. I like the concept of having a– what did you call it like when a setup, a series of setup pages or whatever?
Rich: [07:15] Yeah, like a wizard.
Aaron: [07:16] Yeah, wizard. Thank you. That’s the thing that drives me nuts with a lot of themes. And that’s where a lot of people have come to me saying, “Hey, I bought this and it looks nothing like it.” So, just to clarify like what you demo, they go through the wizard and you wind up having something that actually looks like the demo.
Rich: [07:38] Yeah, it’s a one to one.
Aaron: [07:40] Sweet, amazing.
Rich: [07:44] I know, right?
Aaron: [07:45] It’s very logical to have to have that. And I don’t want to slam other theme companies but, a ton of them are just– they look blank almost when they start off and it’s super frustrating for someone that is just now getting into WordPress. So that’s cool.
Rich: [08:05] Right. And it’s also frustrating for people who know what they’re doing.
Aaron: [08:09] Well that’s true.
Rich: [08:11] Yeah, like install all these other plugins and then go in and try to find demo files and then go in and try to set up all the custom post types before you do that. Otherwise, you have to do it all over again. There’s all those steps that definitely new people don’t understand, but there’s a whole other step even for people who know what they’re doing. It can be a mess really, really easily.
Aaron: [08:33] That’s cool. How do you handle support for your themes?
Rich: [08:37] I do a lot of it myself these days. I do have a contractor who helps out. But, I like to keep my hands in there because I don’t get a lot of tickets. A lot of my themes are relatively simple and a lot of the easy things– or, a lot of the common topics I get are relatively easy to answer so I have a lot of ‘help’ articles on there. I like to just stay in there and get things. That way, if the same issue comes up two or three times, I’m able to rectify that in the code and then ship out an update pretty quickly.
Aaron: [09:07] Nice. That’s cool. Well, we try to go through a bunch of questions in a certain order here and I kind of skipped the, ‘What do you do for fun?’ I hope it’s not like me 20 years ago, what did I do for fun was like web stuff. Now I try to separate my life and work. So, what do you do for fun?
Rich: [09:32] Lately, I’ve been really getting into running. I’ve been running three days a week; Monday, Wednesday, Friday, just for an hour or so in the morning. It’s just been so relaxing and just enjoyable. And I do it with friends, so I get to see people and it’s just been– I feel like– a life changer over the last couple of months. I think it’s something I want to do for a while.
[09:52] We’re training for a 10K, but I think it’s something I want to keep up. But apart from that I just enjoy music. I play guitar a whole lot; used to play electric guitar and drums back in my younger days. Now, I like to sit on the couch, get all acoustic and just jam out and play around.
Aaron: [10:12] It’s amazing to me how many– and I think this was mentioned. I’m assuming you know Tom McFarlin. He’s also in Georgia and he does music too, plays guitar. I don’t know if he plays drums, but that’s interesting because there are so many developers that are musicians too.
[10:32] I’m not sure. I didn’t get that skill too, which makes me kind of mad. My kids are getting those skills though, so that’s good.
Rich: [10:43] Nice.
Aaron: [10:44] But, you played basketball too?
Rich: [10:47] Oh, yeah. I love basketball, play once a week. I’m not awesome. I used to be. I am not awesome, but, it’s just so much fun. If you play with good friends and just hang out basically and play.
Aaron: [11:02] That’s cool. Well, I’m going to jump back into your background because, like I said, I started off with design. So, how did you start off with design? Did you go to college? Did you go to school for it? Was it just something you picked up and then– how did you move from that to development?
Rich: [11:25] I went to school originally for engineering and architecture and decided pretty quickly that it wasn’t for me. I mean, I enjoy the logic behind it and such, but the schooling part of it just got me. I wasn’t really awesome in school, so I switched over to marketing. That’s kind of where I started experimenting a little bit and learning some stuff. But back in– what was that? 2005, 2004, 2005 and 2006– no, six, seven, eight, nine. It was basically a lot of retail and marketing strategies and not as much detail in the online world. So I started dabbling outside of class into that area.
[12:07] As soon as I graduated, I started working for a local marketing firm for small businesses and doing only design work from there. But, I would design stuff and really cool landing pages that looks crazy now, but back then, it was like, “Wow, that’s so amazing.” My developers would come over to me and be like, “Yo, we can’t really do all this. We only have two hours” or whatever. And I’m like, “Well, I don’t know what to do here.”
[12:31] So, I decided at that point it was really important for me to start fiddling with code, so I can understand, if I do something like this, it’s going to take a long time to try to do it. Or trying to learn those constraints in the interface and with the developer side of things. And then, I just went headfirst into it because it was– I just really enjoyed making the designs come to life and using subtle animations and just making the whole package comes together. That’s the fun part for me. But, that’s how I went from design to development.
Aaron: [13:03] That makes sense. We get some– I own an agency called Sideways8. And, I’m saying that for you, not necessarily for people. You’ve gone to wpsquareone.com. You’ve seen the bio and whatnot.
[13:21] It’s amazing to me that if we get– so, most of the time we’ll do the whole– we can do branding. We can do from the beginning to the end. A client comes to us and says, “Hey, I need a website.” We do text wires and then wires and wireframes, and then the design and then we code it out. But some of the stuff we get a lot of work from agencies that they already have a design. And the thing that– I wouldn’t say kills us, but I would say that adds a whole lot of time is that there’s a lot of designers that have never dabbled in code. And, if they understood the limitations, they could very easily save hours, kind of like before there were transparencies within CSS. Just having something not overlap in a photoshop file, versus overlapping, can save a significant amount of my time, at least at least for me. So, I would assume that helped you a ton.
Rich: [14:36] Right, yeah. It really did for sure. That’s probably one of the best decisions I’ve made in my career is to explore in that area.
Aaron: [14:44] That’s cool. Well, concerning your products, what sets you apart? I understand the– I’m never going to forget about the wizard thing because I’ve dealt with the– I can’t even think– the Genesis stuff in. When you first install the theme, it comes very empty. I know you can import some stuff. That’s, I know, one thing that sets you apart from the others. But, do you have any other things that might set you apart?
Rich: [15:26] Yeah. I think the second big thing that is my crux for my business, what I do and focus on is the design aspect. I spend a lot of time reaching out to potential— Like if I’m building a certain type of theme, I’ll reach out to clients or potential clients and find out like what don’t they like about their current blog if it’s something similar to what I’m doing, or get them on the phone and just tell me about what they ran into, the pain points that they’re hitting. And then I just evolve a plan and design around that.
[15:59] In that way, I can take my ability to make things simple and beautiful and clean and modern, but also, solve all these problems that these guys are having, like real-world problems, and then combine them together. Then that usually hit us off with some winners.
[16:17] I haven’t done very many themes lately. I do like two a year right now, but the two that I do are making just as much as the four or five or six or seven that I used to make in the past. So, it’s really about focusing and really drilling down on the client’s needs and what they want too—it’s important—but just making sure that they get a theme that is focused and design-oriented that they just absolutely love.
Aaron: [16:41] Do you do subscription-based themes or is it a ‘buy one and you get it forever’ type thing?
Rich: [16:52] Yeah, I do all the subscription stuff, if it’s purchased through my website. I think it’s been three years since I’ve been running subscriptions. It’s one of the first shops to do it, but it’s been awesome. People use themes for multiple years, especially when they’re buying for themselves. A lot of my themes are the type of themes that people buy for themselves and not so much for other clients. I do get a couple, but at least for my business, at least 60% to 70% are for themselves. It’s much easier to sell them on keeping their subscription active when I’m continuously pushing updates to keep up with WordPress. And especially with Gutenberg around the corner; it’s been super easy because I’m talking about all this stuff that I’m doing with Gutenberg and my themes and I’m using my latest theme, which is my last name, Tabor.
[17:38] It’s like the playground area where I’m pushing out updates almost weekly to keep it up to date with Gutenberg. And I’m learning all this stuff that I’m applying to all my other themes and everyone who buys a theme within this previous year will get all the updates for Gutenberg. Then they are encouraged to keep that up because obviously Gutenberg’s coming at some point and they’re going to want all the new and latest stuff.
Aaron: [18:03] You beat me to the Gutenberg question. That’s a great segue there because when we were at WordCamp Atlanta, we did— I wasn’t that involved in it because I’ve never really got into development with Gutenberg, but tell me a little about what you’re doing specifically with Gutenberg. I will end with a question about, “If someone were a developer, what would be a good way for them to get into Gutenberg development?” But first, what are you doing with Gutenberg?
Rich: [18:53] There’s a lot you can do with Gutenberg right now. There’s a lot of different approaches that a lot of developers are taking. I think, for me with my theme background and having a whole catalog of themes, like eighteen or so, that I’m trying to figure out the best way to migrate over into Gutenberg. That’s where I started at last December, as soon as we saw the demo at WordCamp US.
[19:16] So since then, like I said, I’m using Tabor is my playground, so that way I’m not updating eighteen themes every week to push out updates. And now that things are getting pretty solid, I’m going to start migrating a lot of the Gutenberg stuff that I’ve learned with themes and have been writing about on my blog and my migrate all of that into each of my individual themes. I’m also building some plugins. I’ve got CoBlocks which you mentioned in the very beginning. It’s kind of grown into a suite of blocks for content marketers.
[19:45] It’s just some simple stuff right now like you can search GIPHY through one of the blocks and insert a GIF. You can add GIF’s and accordions and “click to tweet” stuff and “click to share”. But eventually, I want to grow it into more newsletter stuff and just explore working in Gutenberg and building interfaces that are just like my themes where they’re simple and they all just makes sense. My goal would be where you wouldn’t be able to tell that it’s any different than any other Gutenberg block. Like in Core, they all work the same. They’re all familiar and they’re all interchangeable. I think that that’s kind of where Gutenberg’s going to shine in the next couple of years when people really start diving into it is use block plugins or even block page builders.
[20:29] We’ve been experimenting, me and a couple of friends, just trying to build blocks that are more page-builder-orientated instead of just content-oriented, which the editor is right now. And that’s been a really awesome experiment as well.
Aaron: [20:43] I’m not the first person to think of this, but, I think Gutenberg will become the page builder. I don’t know if that means that things like a Beaver Builder and Elementor are going to wind up fading or if they’re going to also morph into a bunch of Gutenberg blocks. Do you have an opinion on that?
Rich: [21:14] Yeah. I mean, I don’t think for a while they’re not going to morph, but I think they’re eventually. That’s what I would assume that they would probably morph into some sort of suite of blocks. But I think for a time they’re probably okay. They’re doing really good right now. Gutenberg still has quite a bit of growing to do to get to that level. It is moving fast and even the last couple of updates have been really good and on the user interface side of things, but there are a lot of little quirks that need to be ironed out before I would consider importing over such a huge project.
Aaron: [21:48] Yes, they have a massive project. Mike and I were talking, it was the last interview or I think we were just talking just in person. Nonetheless, I don’t think we’ve seen– and he more so doesn’t think that we’ve seen a big push for Gutenberg yet. We think that a lot of people will– once it’s released, then a ton of people will be jumping on the bandwagon and then try to do a catch-up type thing. I could be wrong, but I just don’t think there’s a lot of movement on a lot of the plugins. How many plugins are in there now? Forty-seven thousand now in the repository, so, it’s got to be hard for everybody to update. I don’t know. I could be wrong.
Rich: [22:53] Yeah. I think there’s a lot of moving pieces. And also, it’s not even really all about just the actual process of updating. It’s about figuring out the best way to migrate your plugin into Gutenberg if it’s something of that nature. It’s not keeping your Shortcodes together is not the end goal. It’s really building the interface in Gutenberg that you can work with. It doesn’t even look like a Shortcode anymore. It’s completely different. It’s very visual and very– it just makes sense. That sort of mentality is what’s going to be hard to come around to because it takes a lot of work to get there.
Aaron: [23:30] Yeah, I think we see a lot of rebuilds of plugins. And it could also– if they can’t keep up, my guess is that this is opening the door for a lot of new plugins to come in. And if they deliver sooner and faster, it would, I would assume, push a couple of people out of the– I wouldn’t say market, but out of the popularity.
Rich: [24:06] Yes, I agree.
Aaron: [24:05] So, the other question I had. If someone is just now getting into Gutenberg development, where would you push people? I mean, just to get information, like training– not training, but I mean, education basically.
Rich: [24:27] There’s two things. There’s really three good resources, but the first place I would suggest starting is the Gutenberg handbook on wordpress.org. I think wordpress.org/gutenberg/handbook. It just is a really good– it’s gotten way better over the last couple of months, but it’s really good at documenting everything. It gives you examples and different– and (inaudible 4:48).
[00:24:51] It’s been really useful. I reference it almost every day now even, after working with Gutenberg for so long. But I’m also a huge firm believer of seeing code and then manipulating it and trying to figure out how that works. So, there’s a bunch of examples on the wordpress.org GitHub repository and also within the actual Gutenberg repository on GitHub. There are all the core blocks listed in there. They’re all written in ES Next, so you have to learn that. But if you would go ahead and learn it, then you do not have to relearn it again in a couple months or a year. But it’s really not. It’s really not that much difference. But, I think looking at those examples and figuring out how Core is doing things is really useful and applying it to custom blocks.
[25:40] It’s been great seeing the evolution of Gutenberg over the last year because I’m keeping up with the core blocks and updating things as they’re updating things. I’m learning why they updated things to certain ways and why they’re changing things and it’s been really insightful to see all of that over the last year.
[25:57] And then the third place. Yeah, the third one is a quick one. I’ve mentioned this a lot like the create Guten block. It’s a zero config, a developer toolkit for trading blocks. Basically, it’s on GitHub right now and you just run it in your terminal and you have a basic Gutenberg block set up for you and you can play around from there.
Aaron: [26:23] Yeah, I probably need to look into that and understand it.
Rich: [26:25] It’s really the fastest way to get up.
Aaron: [26:28] How many times has the updates have broken your blocks?
Rich: [26:35] I guess broken is relative. I mean, I’ve had some updates where positioning of things has been a little quirky or they change class names, because I’m using a lot of the core class names in my block so that I don’t have to redo anything. A lot of the updates lately have been pushing my K and two or three updates, whatever. The next big version is coming out. We’re going to drop support for x, y, and z. So, you need to switch them. It tells you that in the code.
Aaron: [27:04] I wasn’t questioning your ability or your code. I know that things are morphing like you said, it’s morphing really fast. So I’m sure that they’re making decisions that affect what, what you’re working on. It’s a little frustrating, but good, I guess.
Rich: [27:29] Yeah. Right now, it’s currently a lot of “build it and rebuild it” kind of things, but it’s not bad. It’s little things like they moved all the colors into its own color setting panel within all the core blocks, so I need to do the same thing across all of mine, but that’s not super easy to do. I mean, it is, but it’s also very time-consuming.
[27:52] Those kinds of things are the things that are not a big deal right now, but when there’s hundreds of blocks out there, if twenty of them are doing things the way Core does and it’s very familiar to users, those are the twenty that people are going to focus to and they’re going to crowd around.
Aaron: [28:09] Especially at WordPress.
Rich: [28:10] You can go outside the mold and do things differently but at the same time…
Aaron: [28:12] Not really.
Rich: [28:15] Right, I know. The goal here is to make it a concurrent interface no matter what you’re doing. You just know what to do before. You just add the block and then you start working with it. It’s not confusing, but it’s going to be interesting seeing how blocks evolve over the next year. I don’t even think we’re getting into the crazy blocks yet. I think we’re still sticking to the really simple editor style blocks.
Aaron: [28:44] My humble opinion; it’s just a replacement of the editor. I mean, that’s the target right now. Yes, it’s going to get crazy. When I look at some of the stuff that’s on ThemeForest and the way people do stuff, it’ll be very interesting to see which companies or markets or whatever can keep up with stuff and doing it the right way. So that’ll be really interesting.
[29:24] It’s good to hear that you are at least working on it with one theme and then you’re going to port it over to all of your other themes. I mean, that’s what I think most places are going to do. And I guess the messier a theme is, the harder it’s going to be for people to make those changes because I think about some of the themes that are so shortcode-driven. It’ll be a headache for them.
Rich: [29:58] Yeah. I’m a firm believer that a lot of themes probably aren’t going to put the effort in to do this. I think we’re going to see a big divide here where the top maybe 10%, 15%, maybe 20% are going to focus on actually delivering Gutenberg compatibility and support and making a solid theme set. Whereas all the people who have uploaded a theme to any marketplace and basically forgot about it or don’t care, it doesn’t make enough money to justify all the work that’s going to go into it to do this. I feel like that’s just going to…
Aaron: [30:34] Which is not necessarily a bad thing Well, I’ve got one question that it would not be WP Square One if I didn’t ask this question. If you had to go back to square one today, what would you do differently?
Rich: [31:01] I guess I sort of hinted at this earlier, but what I would do differently is from day one, start talking to potential customers. And as soon as I get customers, start talking to them too because back then you really didn’t need to do that in the theme market. You just could put something out and people would probably buy it. The market was that good. But I knew going into it year after year I was like, “Okay, I’m missing something. I’m missing this feedback component that is detrimental, ” which I’ve learned now. It really is detrimental because now we’re in a maturing market. A lot of people say it’s saturated. It is pretty saturated, but we’re in this market where you really have to put your best foot forward. And one of the ways to do that is to focus on product research and development and focus on feedback and actually get on the phone with clients.
[31:53] I’ve started this thing where I just set up little Calendly fifteen-minute interviews basically. I’d say, “Here’s my two days that I leave two hours open right here. So if you want to call me, call me and schedule it there.” And then I get to talk with people and actually hear their pain points. That’s what I would tell myself like, “Start this today. I do this now,” because it’s hard to get started and it doesn’t sound like fun, but when you are actually solving real problems and building really good, solid products for people who already want to pay you to do that, it just makes sense to do what they want you to do—
Aaron: [32:30] Awesome. I like that.
Rich: [32:30] —if it aligns with what you align with.
Aaron: [00:32:31] How can people get in touch with you; Twitter, Facebook, your website, blah blah blah? Go ahead and list the marketing information.
Rich: [32:44] I’m on Twitter pretty regularly @richard_tabor. My blog is richtabor.com, and that’s where I’ve been writing a lot about Gutenberg lately, especially. I kind of took a few week hiatus because we just moved and all that. But, I’ve got a few articles lined up. I’m not really on Facebook much, but I sell themes on themebeans.com and you can get in touch with me through any of those places. Those are typically where I like to reside.
Aaron: [33:14] Awesome. Well, I’ll list all of those on the website when we post this. I greatly appreciate your time.
Rich: [33:22] Yeah, it’s been great.
Aaron: [33:24] Alright, I will see you probably at WordCamp US.
Rich: [33:28] Yeah, I’ll be there.
Aaron: [33:30] All right, see you.
Rich: [33:31] All right man. Thanks.