Eric Debelak is the co-founder and senior developer at 11 Online, a digital agency based out of Albuquerque, New Mexico. He’s also the co-founder of a plugin called Block Party, a collection of Gutenberg blocks that make data visualization in WordPress easy.
Aaron: [00:01] Hi, my name is Aaron.
Micah: [00:04] And I’m Micah, and you are listening to the WP Square One podcast. With us today is Eric Debelak. He is the co-founder and Senior Dev at 11 Online and the co-founder of a cool plugin called Block Party. Or is it a plugin now or is it more than that?
Eric: [00:23] It’s a plugin.
Micah: [00:25] Okay.
Aaron: [00:26] And when you say when you say, “block party”, that has nothing to do with the band, right?
Eric: [00:30] No.
Aaron: [00:31] Okay. Alright. I just figured there’s a “k” in your spelling. So tell us a little about yourself and what you do.
Eric: [00:40] My company 11 Online was founded by myself and another person about four and a half years ago. And we’ve done a lot of different types of work. Albuquerque is not a big market, so when we first got started out we kind of took whatever we could get. So then included a lot of WordPress, but it also included web apps and various backends like Node and PHP and some Meteor work and Python work. As we started growing, there was another company who was our closest competitors really locally. They got a lead on a contract that we could do the work for, but they had the lead, and so they asked if we could do it together and we did that for awhile. Still one of our biggest clients, but we didn’t want to subcontract with them, they didn’t want to subcontract with us, so we decided to form a third company to do this one contract. And then after awhile we said, “Okay, what are we doing running three companies?” So we merged. We still do a lot of different types of work. We still do WordPress, we do web apps, we do React Native and now we’re doing some marketing work. We’re about 10 people. I’m just kind of rambling. I don’t know what kind of details you want.
Aaron: [02:19] Rambling is fine for me. I tend to do that on a regular basis. I don’t know, Micah, do you have any direct questions or do you want to tell us…Oh yeah, go ahead.
Micah: [02:34] I hear that most web development companies only go up to ten, but yours goes up to eleven. Can you tell us a little about that?
Eric: [02:41] Yeah. Well, have you guys seen “This Is Spinal Tap”?
Aaron: [02:44] I have now.
Micah: [02:46] I sent him a video right before.
Aaron: [02:50] I know all about it now, so I’m an expert. We need to make sure we put the link to the YouTube video that you had on the podcast here, but go ahead. Tell us about 11.
Eric: [03:06] My other co-founder and then the two guys that ran the other company that we merged with were all musicians. We were really struggling with the name, and someone threw that idea out and we were like, “Okay, that’s what we’re going to do.” If you don’t know the movie, there’s a scene where the guitarist is being interviewed and he is saying that bands have this problem where they have their guitar up to ten, they’ve got their amp up to ten, and where do you go from ten? And so they made special amps that go to eleven. The joke is the interviewer said, “Well, why don’t you just make 10 louder?” And the guitarist is baffled and says, “Well, eleven go to 11.”
Aaron: [03:54] That’s great. So you guys are eleven. My agency is an eight. There’s a ten (unclear 04:00) out there somewhere. And so we need to find a nine. So if there’s an agency out there with a number nine in there, reach out to us. We’d like to interview you. So anyway, we’ll definitely have to put that link on there. But tell us about what year you started, how you started and stuff like that. Just so you know, I’m also an agency owner so we can probably explain our, our woes, our complaints together, but let’s not record those; those will be off the record.
Eric: [04:38] We started four and a half years ago. I had started, I got into WordPress. Well, I got into web dev just really randomly. My dad is a serial entrepreneur and he had a web developer that just disappeared on him. I was in college, and of course was happy to earn some extra money. So he said, “Okay. Do you think you can figure this thing out?” So I kind of got started with figuring out what needed to be finished with his website, making changes. That was using, oh, I’m not even going to remember what CMS that was. But then we switched over and did a static website just using Dreamweaver. And then in 2003, 2004, I installed WordPress to use as a blog for my dad’s side. And then in 2006 about, we moved the whole site over to WordPress. I had done, kind of over the years, various sites for him, various sites for other people.
[05:54] About five years ago, I was looking to change careers. I had this experience with doing sites for people, but I had a lot of gaps in my knowledge. Albuquerque at that time had just opened up a programming boot camp. Right now it’s part of the central New Mexico Community College. But at the time I went, it was just in a storefront next to a dry cleaners’ run by two guys. I decided to give it a shot because I kind of had a little bit of experience in this. That’s where I met my first business partner. He came to the business, or came to programming, through ethical hacking. He had done some computer science stuff in college, but it was actually a finance guy, but got really interested in ethical hacking. We met at the boot camp, and then we started the business because at that time there weren’t really any jobs locally and neither one of us wanted to move. And so we said, “Well, let’s see what we can do, let’s see what kind of work we can get.” Since I had experience with WordPress that was a really easy way that we could get started launching sites and we expanded from there.
Aaron: [07:30] I wrote a article once, something like a accidental entrepreneur because I knew I didn’t want to work for somebody anymore, but I didn’t really have a plan. I kind of morphed and eventually started a company with another guy. So I can relate. You guys have been doing WordPress. You said that’s not your primary, but I guess what percentage of your businesses WordPress related?
Eric: [08:04] It’s probably about a third, revenue-wise.
Aaron: [08:09] Nice. What type of stuff do you guys do when it comes to WordPress? I mean, do you guys do theme development, plugin developments? All of the above?
Eric: [08:18] Yeah. We’ve tried to differentiate ourselves from regional competitors by doing custom work. Often we get started with marketing agencies who maybe have an in-house staff, but they can’t build some custom plugin that they need. That might be a foot in the door, and then we do maybe something more sophisticated for them later on, or we do a web app for some of their clients and we get hired directly. Like we’ve done several projects with universities, government work. People want to make sure they have a WordPress site that is custom built for their needs by people who know how to build stuff and not just use off-the-shelf plugins.
Aaron: [09:06] Fair enough. How does Block Party fit into all of that?
Eric: [09:12] Well we try to build in risks to our company. Every year we try to do at least like a couple things that are not paid. We’re just maybe trying out something like a product or trying to learn something new, maybe and are just willing to do kind of a fun project for ourselves. And Block Party grew out of a WordCamp Albuquerque 2018, I guess. It was January. We had some people come that were involved in Gutenberg. I was kind of following it, but not looking at it too closely. And I don’t know if you guys are familiar with Sam Hotchkiss. He used to run the Jet Pack team, and he started Brute Protect before it was bought by Automatic. He used to live here and he’s a local guy. He had this idea like, “I wonder if someone could use Gutenberg to build data visualizations.”
Block Party really grew out of the idea: “I wonder if I can build data visualizations with #Gutenberg” https://wpblock.party/ #WordPressTweet
[10:24] Talking with some of the people that were involved in Gutenberg, I kind of got more interested in it. And then Block Party really grew out of this idea that: I wonder if I can build data visualizations with Gutenberg, and what would that look like? The product has changed several times. Once we got the hang of it, we put together some plugins thinking that Gutenberg would come out in the spring. Obviously that didn’t happen. so it’s almost the end of the year, right? In the spring, we were thinking, well, maybe we can be first to market with some other blocks. We had thought about like launching a suite of blocks. Since then, a lot of other people, especially theme companies, have come out with blocks. So we’re kind of refocusing on the data visualization stuff and try to differentiate ourselves and build data visualization blocks for WordPress.
[11:27] We have a handful of them right now. We have a bunch that are in development as we have time, and we’re adding new features. Like I just added a feature for syncing with a Google Spreadsheet for instance. So you could have a Google Form that populates a spreadsheet, then your site would pull that data visualization in real time onto your site. So there’s a lot of cool things I think that are possible with that kind of stuff. And so it grew out of first a challenge. What’s possible? Is this something that is feasible to do with Gutenberg? And then we decided to try our first WordPress product with that time that we anyway set aside to take some risks as a company.
Aaron: [12:14] Fair enough. So that’s kind of like-a-extra-when-you-guys-have-time type concept?
Eric: [12:20] Yeah. I hope it turns into something more, but you never know.
Aaron: [12:25] Yeah, we try to spin off some different things here and there. We have yet to successfully come up with a product that we can package and sell. So we’re working on it. When (unclear 12:38) comes out, how’s that going to affect you guys? I would assume, and I’m just kind of guessing, it’d be a good thing for you guys.
Eric: [12:44] Yeah, I mean we’ve been waiting for it since early spring, so we feel ready for Gutenberg. I think Gutenberg offers an opportunity for companies our size, which is, we haven’t seen a disruption in the WordPress market like this for, I don’t know how long. Eight years maybe? I’m trying to think what would be something that’s really similar.
Aaron: [13:18] I don’t think there is anything.
Eric: [13:19] Well, there’s custom post types was a disruption.
Micah: [13:24] Yeah. But that was kind of easy to architect from what they already had. So I would say, this is probably bigger.
Eric: [13:33] Yeah. So this might be the biggest disruption since the beginning, right? So what does that mean for companies like my size? Ten people. It’s really hard to enter market with a e-commerce plugin, right? It’s infeasible or a forum plugin or an SEO plugin because there’s already these big players that make it very difficult, right? They have how many thousands of hours development on their product, how many thousands, hundreds of thousands, tens of thousands of sites use it so that they already know the compatibility issues. They had this whole infrastructure in history that give them an advantage that would be really hard to overcome as a small team. But this disruption for Gutenberg means that all of a sudden that advantage, at least in that space, is mitigated, right? Like there’s still name recognition and things like that, but it gives you an opportunity to jump in and be known for something, and get some traction. I think that Gutenberg really provides an opportunity for companies my size to make a bigger impact. Disruptions are always a time where you can take advantage of shifting things in the market. So I look forward to it. There’s definitely going to be pains and growing pains as people shift to using Gutenberg. And there’s a lot of problems like that. But from my standpoint, since I’ve been doing WordPress, this is the best opportunity that we’ve had to do something to kind of get into this market.
Micah: [15:39] I think it’s cool that you’ve actually had a plenty of time to work on it too, right?
Eric: [15:46] Much more than we thought we were going to have for sure.
Micah: [15:51] So yeah, I remember you showing me a while back, your Block Party plugin. I haven’t checked it out lately, but I know you had a large number of different types of blocks. So it sounds like you’ve definitely honed in on the data personalization as well as integrations, which is pretty cool. Sounds interesting.
Eric: [16:17] And again, I think too, I always look for ways to be different, and it became really apparent that the theme companies, were all going to come out with little UI blocks. Can we really compete with them? Like with their market share and things like that? But are they going to build data visualization blocks? Obviously the market’s smaller for that, but I am personally not a sports guy at all. I love playing sports, but I don’t watch sports. But two of my business partners are just sports nuts and they are always on sites with graphs and charts. There is a market for that kind of stuff. Will it be big enough for us? I think there’s a lot of unknowns for us, but we did feel like this would be one area that we could differentiate ourselves.
Micah: [17:26] To be honest, I think a lot of the tools for working with bars, and graphs, and charts, and things sometimes are even complicated as they exist in various places already. So I think the easier you can make it, and the more accessible, I think that would probably go over really, really well. I’m just trying to think of taking a spreadsheet and actually generating, even in Microsoft Excel a bar chart from data. You know there’s a few steps, so being able to make it as simple as possible seems like a very good idea.
Aaron: [18:11] So just for clarification, if you have some kind of data and you wanted to display it, what are the steps of that? Does that make sense?
Eric: [18:20] Yeah. So our blocks work right now, if you have data that you’re just going to enter. You (unclear 18:26) put in key value kind of data in a table in the Gutenberg editor and then you can do things like if it’s a pie chart, choose the color of the slice of pie. You can do an offset. Things like that on a per piece of data like scope, and then globally you can do things like control where the labels are, rotate the pie chart, do a doughnut hole. Each kind of data visualization has different options. So a scatter chart has options, like do you plot a line in the scatter chart? Is it straight, does it have an angle? How much of an angle does it have? All sorts of things like that. So by default if you just put in some data, it will work and look fine, but then you have the opportunity to go in and really customize the look of how you want the data to appear. With like a Google spreadsheet, it’s similar. You just are pulling in that data and then you again have the opportunity to set the color, whatever is associated with that type of data visualization.
Aaron: [19:44] Got it. That makes sense. So I was trying to wrap my head around what Block Party is and that makes perfect sense to me. I’m assuming you have some type of a free version and you’re going to have a paid version or…?
Eric: [19:59] Right now we just have a paid version, and we’re getting ready to launch some free versions. I guess we’ve been waiting for Gutenberg to come out and do some of this. I think that’s going to be the kick in the pants we need to tie all that stuff up and make decisions, but it’s hard right now to have a Gutenberg product because, I’m sure you’re aware, and Micha, I know you speak about Gutenberg as I have. There’s a lot of controversy around it. I think most people aren’t ready, certainly aren’t ready to be building new sites. I shouldn’t say that. No one’s not ready because we’ve already done some Gutenberg sites and we’re ready, but the majority of people are going to punt on Gutenberg as long as they can.
Aaron: [21:04] Yeah, that’s the safer route. Speaking of controversy, I didn’t realize that it was. There are some people that are very much so against it. I welcome it, but that’s just because I feel like– How do I say it? I just feel like the editor seems very stale, very old. So to me, I welcome it. The controversy, controversial people, I don’t really know what the issue is. I know some people don’t like the fact that the library that it’s based on and stuff like that, but to me, I welcome it.
Eric: [21:45] Yeah, I think there’s a disconnect, and I don’t know if I’m going to get hate mail for this, but…
Aaron: [21:50] That’s all right. No one listens to this podcast. We’re good, man.
Eric: [21:58] Okay. Well then I’ll just say, I think there’s a disconnect in the WordPress space. Or there can be a disconnect between who is the end user of this, of the software. Am I the end user or are my clients the end user? I think a lot of the controversy is kind of focused around, “How does this affect me as a developer?” and not at all take into consideration what is the current experience of the end user. The client, right? If as a agency owner, that’s what I do. I build sites for clients. So you take the experience of someone who’s never used WordPress and you do something like a custom post type with thirty extra fields for (unclear 22:53). That in no way connects to… For them, it’s just like a text box or a drop-down or something, right?
[23:05] It doesn’t connect with what they’re going to see in their mind for the front end. It’s a bad experience. We don’t expect that of the software we use, with some exceptions, like maybe markdown (unclear 23:27) and stuff like that. But even then, what do we want to do? We right away want to see feedback and see what we’re doing. Is it working? So I think there’s a big disconnect with a lot of the experiences that we have with building sites and what the customer wants. I think that there’s been definitely innovation in this area, and you have like site builders which I think can improve things for some end users. But you have then other problems. How portable is this?
[24:02] If I want to change my theme or if I want to move to a different site builder, is that even possible? Are you using shortcodes for presentation? And then do clients understand shortcodes? I think that’s maybe even a worse experience than a (unclear 24:40). I personally feel like a lot of the controversy is kind of focused on what does this mean for me as opposed to what does this mean for the people who are using the software? I think with one caveat, which is I think there is a very real and pressing concern with accessibility, because that does affect the people who ultimately use the software. Right? So I think that’s a valid criticism. I don’t know how you guys feel about that, but that’s kind of my dig.
Micah: [25:01] So, what is your stance? Well you’ve kind of said what your stance is on that accessibility, but in your opinion, how bad is it?
Eric: [25:13] The accessibility or Gutenberg? I haven’t tried it in awhile. One of my coworkers and I actually, we did, I don’t know, I should have stayed more on top of this. We did do a PR in January. We had a contributor day for WordPress, Albuquerque. And so we went through and we’re saying, “Well, what can we do?” Can we make a contribution? So we put in a PR to make what the gallery was at that time: keyboard accessible. And it was. So I tested it then for keyboard accessibility and it was not accessible. We put in a PR and there was discussion around, well, should this also include drag and drop? And we were focusing on keyboard accessibility, not drag and drop. And then it ended up not getting merged in because they, whoever was reviewing it wanted drag and drop.
[26:11] Since then, I haven’t really tested it for accessibility. I do know that there are some things that I’ve run into that point to maybe some better accessibility. I know that there’s certain keystrokes that are kind of intercepted at a higher levels. I think tab is one of those where it’s a hassle to use, I forget now some of the details because it’s been on block suite. Kind of abandoned, but there’s some keyboard actions that at some point in one of the components, it’s using tab to either make a new block or to take you out of your block editing experience and go to maybe the “add a new block” button or something like that. So I think there has been some improvement, but I haven’t really done a thorough assessment since January.
Micah: [27:07] Cool. I think a lot of the accessibility folks were frustrated because they would open tickets and developers weren’t tackling them. I think that’s kind of where like you said, you asked for keyboard accessibility and you end up somebody wants drag and drop. I’m sure that’s probably been a repeating theme that’s annoying, annoyed some folks.
Eric: [27:39] And look, I mean, I’m sympathetic to the developers. We have one of our web apps is it’s a substance abuse intervention that’s used by universities and healthcare providers. Universities are very strict guidelines on accessibility because they take federal money, and when we got our first university client, or our client got their first university client we had to do a full accessibility testing suite and we had to make sure that we are double A whatever the acronym is for that. And it’s really hard, with a application. The application that we had was also React, and it’s really hard to do some of those accessibility items because you have, it’s not like just the page renders and the screen reader needs to be able to read it and you need to get to the next links with tab, and you have things popping up and, as things appear on the page, is a screen reader properly reading it? You need to have a different mindset when you’re building an accessible application that has that kind of interactivity. So I know it’s not an easy problem.
“You need to have a different mindset when you’re building an accessible application… it’s not an easy problem.” @ericdebelak #Gutenberg #accessibilityTweet
Micah: 29:00] Yeah. Until I was exposed to accessibility. If somebody told me I needed to make something accessible, I would have definitely not known how to do that. It’s not until you actually play around with it, I think and try to do things without using your mouse and try to do things without looking at your screen even maybe…
Eric: [29:22] That’s a whole different thing. I have a lot of sympathy, especially for people who use screen readers. If you’ve never tried to use a screen reader I recommend it because the amount of information that just comes at you and how fast it’s read. It must take a long time. But I guess we do the same thing with reading, right? We scan, we look for keywords. I’m sure that your brain kind of gets re-trained to do that just with audio, but. You must need some training. It must take a long time to get used to that. I would think.
Micah: [30:05] Well, if you listen to enough old movies where they talk really fast…
Aaron: [30:12] I was going to say I’m forty-one. I’m still not used to it. Maybe I’m on the downside of this where I’m just going to get slower and slower. I can’t handle as much, but we’ll see. Could get better. It could get worse. I don’t know. But anyway. Well Micah, you want to hit him up with an important question.
Micah: [30:35] Oh yeah. The most important question of the podcast.
Aaron: [30:37] And of the day. And maybe of the week, but it’s early in this week.
Micah: [30:44] Yet to be determined, I suppose on that. So question: if you were to start back at square one, what would you do differently? So in other words, obviously you said you happened into business partners, happened into a number of things. But if you could go back and be a lot more intentional, what would you have done differently?
“If I could go back and do one thing differently, I would have hired sooner.” @ericdebelakTweet
Eric: [31:11] I think I would have hired sooner. We waited a long time to bring on team members, and it got to the point where it was really hard to bring on people because we were really busy. I mentioned before that we took on whatever work we could when we first got started. By the time when we made our first hire, we were doing WordPress, Python, React, Meteor, and Node.
[31:48] Probably a handful of other things. And so, how do you hire for that? It’s just like, that’s crazy. But then also we were so overwhelmed with how much work we had that it was really hard to bring someone on just in terms of time. How do you train somebody, how do you get them used to your practices? And so I think that’s the mistake. One of the bigger mistakes we made is we waited too long and I would have rather taken a risk and maybe paid myself less or whatever. And brought on someone when we weren’t overly busy and doing too many different types of things. We’ve since cut back and streamlined, and don’t do so many different types of projects anymore, but you still need a lot of time just to bring someone on. At least that’s our experience. It’s hard to find someone that’s just like, “Okay, day one, you’re ready to go on. We don’t need to tell you anything or show you anything.”
Aaron: [33:02] Well that’s good information. And I would agree. I think we could probably could have grown a little quicker if we had hired sooner, but it’s difficult. You want to play it safe, not go into debt. So it makes sense.
Eric: [33:19] It’s a scary step. It’s still scary to think that all these people depend on me. I mean not just me, but me and the other partners. They have mortgages and families.
Aaron: [33:37] Yeah, I get it. Well, how can we get in touch with you if we needed to? Like Twitter and stuff.
Micah: [34:01] You can go to wpblock.party.
Eric: [34:05] Thank you, Micah. Yes. I’m very bad at self-promotion. So I’m glad you’re around to help me out on that.
Micah: [34:15] I suck at it too, but I can help you promote yourself.
Aaron: [34:20] Awesome. Well thank you for your time. I appreciate it.
Eric: [34:22] You’re welcome. I’m happy to be part of this.