Introducing Eric Karkovack
Eric Karkovack has been a web designer since 1996, back when static HTML and Netscape ruled the web. In 1999, he became a home-based freelancer and has been there ever since.
Tara: This is Hallway Chats, where we meet people who use WordPress.
Liam: We ask questions, and our guests share their stories, ideas, and perspectives.
Tara: And now the conversation begins. This is episode 103.
Liam: Welcome to Hallway Chats. I’m Liam Dempsey.
Tara: And I’m Tara Claeys. Today we’re joined by Eric Karkovak. Eric has been a web designer since 1996, back when static HTML and Netscape ruled the web. In 1999, he became a home-based freelancer and has been there ever since. He’s also a writer for publications such as Speckyboy, 1stWebDesigner, and ACF. Welcome, Eric.
Eric: Hi, there. Thanks for having me on.
Liam: You’re very welcome, Eric, thanks for joining us out here in the virtual hallway. Can you tell us a little bit more about yourself, please?
Eric: Well, I’m basically a self-taught web designer. I started off in high school way back in the 90s. Right out of high school, I got a job at my local newspaper, The Carlisle Sentinel. I was their first full time web designer. Back in those days it was interesting. Everything was static. There was no such thing as WordPress. There were no content management systems at all that I knew of. I learned a lot there.
Worked a couple corporate places after that, and really didn’t find that I was moving forward like I wanted to. So in 1999, I started off on my own. It’s been quite a 20-year journey here, and I’m just thrilled to still be around, still learn something every day. And I’m crazy about WordPress.
Tara: Tell us a little bit about this. So 20 years you’ve been doing freelancing. When you started, that was before the craze of WordPress and all of that, how did you learn how to work for yourself and get clients and develop your skills to keep serving them as time has gone on?
Eric: Well, it wasn’t so easy. I thought it was going to be easy when I started. I thought okay, “I’ll just sit at home.” I have a better computer at home than I ever had in the offices I worked at. So I figured I could find clients and just make lots of money and drive a Porsche or something, but it definitely wasn’t that easy. I was very fortunate right away to get a steady agency client who fed me regular amounts of work. He also let me experiment a lot with what I was doing just to be able to learn new things.
As time went on, clients started asking for more and more complicated websites. It wasn’t just a five-page static brochure site anymore. And really, that’s how I came to find WordPress. It was through basically a need to do more with the web. I had to have a way for folks to use a shopping cart or even something as simple as a forum or a photo gallery. Everything was done manually before.
I was hand typing HTML, working in Photoshop and slicing up images a million different ways, and every kind of hack I could find to make things work. So really, it was just an evolution over time. And as clients needed more, that’s what forced me to, to up my game a little bit.
Liam: There’s a lot to unpack there. I want to go back to the fact that you started freelancing in 1999. That was before you could call a client because you probably didn’t do a ton of email in 99. I mean, it was around but it wasn’t as pervasive. Nobody had smartphones, right? Or they were just maybe kind of starting. They weren’t pervasive anyway. And you couldn’t say, “Hey, let’s meet at the coffee shop for a meeting.” That was still culturally weird, or kind of a little hippy-dippy.
Aside from this one corporate client, how did the ebb and flow of managing it and trying to look professional before working from home, meeting in coffee shops, working remotely was such an accepted practice? What was that like?
Eric: It was difficult. To tell the truth, it was hard because first of all, I was very young. I was like 21. So a lot of people just didn’t want to take me seriously. It was one of those situations, even if I knew what I was talking about – and I admit I didn’t always know – it was still really difficult to get people to understand what I was saying. It was trying to go in wearing ties, which I was not at all comfortable with, still not, trying to go into these different settings – it might be a small business, it might be a corporate setting – and trying to sell them on what I knew and what I thought I could do for them. It was definitely a challenge.
And as you said, email was not really an accepted form of communication for a lot of these people. They insisted on phone calls. I can even remember, when I worked at the newspaper, the publisher of the paper literally was like 20 feet away from me in his office, every five minutes he would call me and asked me to walk into his office just to mention something to me. So it was a completely different time. People just didn’t know what to make of the internet yet. It definitely hadn’t become a mainstream necessity like it is now.
Liam: Yeah, that’s really cool. I could sit and talk about this for hours, but I suppose we probably should move on a little bit. Tell us a little bit about writing and how that came into your freelance work and your balance between, you talking about being a web designer and a writer. A little bit about that.
Eric: Well, I’d always wanted to write ever since I was little. This was something that, I don’t know, was kind of like a natural thing I had. I wasn’t an athlete, I wasn’t an artist, so to speak, or anything, but I could write. As I got more into WordPress and I got into the community, I started finding out that it was just so much about sharing knowledge. People really loved to share what they knew. And so I wanted to try to do that in a way too.
So I started submitting articles to Speckyboy, which is speckyboy.com that have been around forever. They take unsolicited articles. And so I thought I’ll just write something and see if they like it. The fellow that runs the site, Paul Andrew, he published it right away. So he liked it. He said, “Anytime you want to write something, just let me know.” And I kept doing it, he kept publishing it and it became eventually a gig. It’s kind of spread on to some other places as well.
But I love that I can do both because I can write about my experiences, I can write about the things that I’ve done wrong, that I can share with other people. And I’ve done a lot of things wrong so hopefully, I’ve prevented some disasters for others. It also forces me to learn more about new technologies, things I might be playing around with otherwise.
Liam: So let me ask you about that because I’m a big fan of signing up to give talks, and things I don’t know about, but feel a professional need or desire to learn about. So I volunteer to give a talk in six weeks on this or that. What’s your process? Do you say, “Hey, I’ll write an article about this and give your time because I just looked at it, and I already understand it now or I’m three weeks into learning it, or do you just volunteer and then use that volunteerism as a form of deadline?
Eric: I really just go off my experience. A lot of what I write about is just informed through my client work. For example, this year, I took on a large multi-site network. It’s about 80 sites. I’ve never done anything quite like it. It’s version control which I had no idea how to do. I never used Git really before. So I’ve kind of started writing about the experiences I’ve had with that.
It’s a site built by somebody else, so I was kind of writing about the land mines I was stepping on as I was going through it. That’s really my process. It’s about figuring out where I am in my everyday work, and then just kind of relating that experience to others. Because I know I’m not the first person to step into a site that I have no idea how it was built or going to maintain it. But you have to learn as you go. So that’s really what I like to do.
Liam: At the risk of asking you to out yourself, Eric, I wonder, this Ed site, multi-site, and then you’re writing about it, do you have any concern about your client reading that news story or blog post? What’s the balance there?
Eric: Well, I don’t identify people. That’s the first thing. I try to speak in general terms. So I don’t say, “Oh, man, the people that built this site are terrible. They just ruined it.”
Liam: No, I guess I don’t mean that. I’m going to cut you off just a second. More along the lines of, and I’m kind of being silly about it tongue in cheek, “I don’t know what I’m doing, it’s a big project. Here’s what I’ve learned so far.” I don’t mean to paint you in any kind of bad light. We’ve all been there. We all do that and that’s how we grow professionally. But how do you walk that line as a writer trying to share, trying to be genuine, trying to grow with also you’ve got a web design business that you’ve got to manage too? How do you walk that line?
Eric: Well, I try to be honest with clients too. That’s the first thing. I don’t go ahead and claim to be an expert at something I’m not. I found over the years that people will ask for things, and if I’m not a good fit for it, I just tell them flat out because I don’t want to disappoint them, I don’t want to take their money for something I may be not good at.
So even going into this project, it was discussed that, hey, this is something I’m going to have to learn. I just use it to help inform my writing too. It’s not something where I’m necessarily admitting I had zero clues what I’m doing, because I have some idea, or else I wouldn’t take it on. But I just try and be straightforward with folks about it.
I understand that the question is it is a fine line you don’t want to talk in terms of “Oh, my gosh, I just hit the nuke button on this site,” and then have a client read it. That’s not something I would want to share with the world. But I’ll share more generalized mistakes that I’ve made.
Tara: I think there’s a challenge in doing what Liam’s asking, which is sharing within your community what you’re learning and what your process is and your struggles as a freelancer, and also communicating to your clients and trying to get new clients and show yourself as being an expert. I want to ask about imposter syndrome as it relates to that because you talked about Git.
In the WordPress space, in the developer space, Git is something that all good developers use. It’s really popular. You put your GitHub link on things and people share all of their code and things that they’ve done. You have to know Git pretty much. But I think to get by for 20 years – and for me, I’ve gotten by a long time without doing very much at all on Git – how have you worked on embracing that and how have you felt up until now not using it? I mean, is it a relief to be using it and do you consider yourself to be more professional or a better developer because you’re doing Git or does that make a difference? It’s kind of a long question, but you can answer it however you want to?
Eric: Well, I think it does make me better. I feel better having the experience. A lot of the struggles I’ve had over the years have been because I’ve been afraid – afraid of what I don’t know. Like for the longest time e-commerce scared me to death. I don’t want to be responsible when someone’s cart doesn’t work. If that transaction doesn’t process, I don’t want to be the one that has to deal with it. But eventually, WordPress has kind of helped me with this. I’ve just started like forcing myself to do it.
I’ve taken on clients that I know are going to be a challenge because I want to learn it, I want to be better at it. And that to me is, why else am I in business if I’m just going to continue to do the same thing for 20 years and it’s not really worth it? To me, if I’m not growing, if the next site isn’t better than the last one, then it’s not worth it to me. So I’m always trying to force myself into learning.
So for a tool like Git, I mean, I go to these WordCamps, I see these folks that are just unbelievably smart and can articulate exactly how they’re doing this and that and it’s still over my head. But that’s just what I’m aspiring to try and get to a level somewhere in that same area code if not right with them.
Tara: How do you define success, Eric? What does success mean to you?
Eric: For me, it’s just being able to get up every day and do something I like. Hopefully, I can make a living at it. Hopefully, I can have a roof over my head and food and all the good stuff, and toys for my cat and all that, and my kid. But just being able to get up every day and do something that is enjoyable, and hopefully help other people learn just as other people have helped me.
Liam: What counts as something enjoyable. I mean, nice coffee, pretty enjoyable. But if you like coffee, or I don’t know that you do…
Eric: I do.
Liam: But that’s a different kind of joy than experiencing your child learn to walk or say mama or dada for the first time. How do you qualify or quantify “something I enjoy”?
Eric: For me, it’s creativity. I love being in that zone, where I’m creating something, whether it’s through a design work, it can be through code just figuring out how something works, and writing. I really get interested in that. I mean, it’s just something where I can just get into a zone where I’m creating something and I get excited about it. There’s just something about that to really gets my juices flowing I guess.
Just as an example, recently, I did an essay for HeroPress. As soon as they accepted to move forward and said, “Hey, you can do the essay,” I wrote it in a day. It was like 1600 words and I wrote it in a day because I was so excited. So I guess if that may be the best example of how something’s enjoyable to me. I get passionate about it.
Liam: Yeah, I get that. What do you write if you’re not writing for HeroPress or about your career or what you’re learning? Do you write creatively on the side? Anything else?
Eric: I don’t really do a lot of formal writing outside of that. My little goofy thing that I’ve done for years is I like to come up with little raps. Isn’t that stupid things. I can remember a few years ago, my wife had a box of borax sitting out in the kitchen. And I wrote this thing down, this goofy rhyme about borax being the favorite cleaning tool of the lorax. It’s goofy stuff just like that that it’s funny only to me. But I do remember my daughter bringing get into her second-grade class because they were studying poetry and teacher apparently read it out loud, and I got a kick out of that.
Tara: That’s fun. There’s a WordPress podcast called Got Options with Kyle Maurer and Adam Silver. They do a lot of rapping and it’s usually WordPress related. So you might check that out.
Eric: Oh, nice.
Liam: And Jason Coleman of Paid Memberships Pro did an entire WordPress rap on YouTube at some point. Geez, this is probably going back five years ago, six years ago. So maybe I’ll grab that out. I’ll tweet that at some point next week.
Eric: Definitely. I’d like to see it.
Tara: There’s a fair amount of WordPress rapping going on around the world, I think.
Eric: I guess the market is already covered. I won’t start.
Tara: You can always add to it. Always.
Liam: It’s fertile ground. They always need new blood in there.
Eric: Maybe I’ll call myself WP Kanye.
Tara: Eric, what’s been your biggest challenge aside from starting your own business 20 years ago?
Eric: Ah, well, a life challenge maybe. I think six years ago, I was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes. That was a pretty big challenge. In my former life, I was someone who crusaded to bring back Surge soda. That was like my biggest thing. I had a website that went viral years ago, and I was so intensely into it.
And it’s funny, the year it came back, Coke brought it back, and I got diabetes the same year so I couldn’t even drink it. So it was just a lot of lifestyle changes, a lot of learning to eat better exercise and get over the feeling sorry for yourself stage. So I’d say that was probably the biggest challenge I faced outside of career.
Liam: So Type 1 is, as you noted, a pretty significant life-changing diagnosis. I have some family members who as teenagers were diagnosed. And since you mentioned about getting over the feeling sorry for myself to use your words, how did you get through that? What was that like for you? What worked? What didn’t work? How are you doing it if you are doing it still?
Eric: I am? I mean, they’re days you’re going to get frustrated. That’s just all there is to it. Part of it I thought for me was just seeing a good doctor who answered questions, who was patient. But for me, it became like a whole quest of self-discipline, I guess. I have always been disciplined about work, but like, outside of work, not so much. I would eat all the junk food. I would lay on the couch for hours watching TV.
It just finally hit me. It’s like, “Okay, if I want to be there for my daughter, if I want to grow old, then I better start exercising, I better stop the junk food. It’s just something’s just kind of clicked in my head. But there was probably that first year or two where it was very difficult because I kept trying to live the way I had been living. It’s like, “Okay, go ahead eat the brownies, after the pizza, and the surge, whatever.” And then you check your blood sugar, and you’re like, “No, this isn’t going to work anymore.”
So now, I mean, even like birthday parties, I usually abstain from cake. If I do have cake, I go home, and I run on the treadmill for like a half hour and burn it off right away, or else I’m going to feel guilty. So it’s just I found a discipline in me that I probably never had. And if any of my high school teachers saw that right now, they probably laugh because it’s about the complete opposite of what I was back then. But I guess that’s what they call growing up.
Tara: Yeah. That’s really interesting to hear that about your motivations, and how you made this dramatic change. I think for a lot of us, we look at change as something that we do to achieve a goal. Like, “I’m going to lose 10 pounds, and I’m going to change to it.” And then you and then you lose 10 pounds and you fall back into your old habits. But with a lifelong health issue like diabetes, there’s no end to it. It’s something that you have to stick with forever. Do you find it daunting to have that view? Do you look at it as a day by day thing? Are there some days like you said, some days you might have the cake and you figure out how to deal with that? It’s not like, I’ll never have a piece of cake again? So how do you deal with this sort of long term…?
Eric: It’s funny. If it goes well for a while, like if my blood sugars are in good shape, you get that in the back of your head that I can do this other thing, I can go have some pizza, I can go do this other thing. And then you realize after you eat it, it’s like, okay, no, diabetes doesn’t take a day off. You might take a day off, but the diabetes is still there.
Tara: I like how you said that.
Eric: For me, it’s just every day just trying to win that day. It’s kind of goofy that…it’s like I become very regimented about it. I eat the same things all the time because I know what it’s going to do to my blood sugar, maybe a little obsessive in some ways, and not as fun for some people. But I like having the stability and just the knowledge of like, “Okay, I know what I’m doing. I know what the results are going to be. And so that’s going to help me get through today. And then tomorrow, I can do the same thing again, and just feel better about myself because of it.”
Tara: You mentioned that you’re disciplined when it comes to work. And I suppose working for yourself, that’s a necessity. You have to be so organized and disciplined to get the work done. How do you accomplish that? What kind of a system or planning or approach do you have to your work life and your discipline there?
Eric: That’s something I really had to learn. When I first started my business, I had this idea of like, okay, I work at home, if I want to go play golf for six hours, I’ll just go do that. And you find out it doesn’t work that way. I mean, I work when my clients work. So I’m here all day. I don’t usually leave unless it’s to take my daughter to school or pick her up from school.
I basically learned that I have to keep a list, like I keep a Trello board these days of just all the things I have to do that day, and some of the longer term things I’m working on. So I’ll try to dedicate a little bit of time each day to each of those tasks. And if I have a little bit of time left over, maybe I’ll use it to write something that just kind of struck me or try to get some extra work done.
But really I find like if I’m not organized, and I’m not going to be able to take care of everybody like I need to. So organizations just a big deal for me. As opposed to when I started, it was just like, “Okay, what’s coming in the email next. Then that’s what I did. But you learn pretty quickly that you can’t do that forever.
Liam: Yeah. Pass management by email is not productive in the long run. Eric, I want to ask you about advice. And I’d like to ask you about the best advice that you’ve ever received, and successfully implemented in your life. So what’s something that somebody else shared with you that’s worked out really well for you?
Eric: That’s a good question. I think years ago, I was at a wedding with my wife and her great uncle was there. And he’d worked for IBM for many years. He was retired and living a good life in Florida. And he said, “In this industry, you either keep learning or you just stand still and you become pretty much like dust.” You have to keep learning. If you don’t up your skills, if you don’t continue to study those latest technologies, then you’re going to get left behind. So I think that was something that really stuck with me over the years.
Liam: Yeah, that’s good advice. And we hear that pretty often. Perhaps not surprising in a tech field. How have you applied that advice to aspects of your life outside of web design, web development technology day job?
Eric: Actually, as I’ve gotten older, I started having like, I like to call them old man hobbies. I love taking pictures, not necessarily even to share with anyone. I just like going out even if it’s just in my backyard taking pictures of wildlife. I’ve really become into bird watching. I got my feeders all set up in the backyard. On a nice summer day, I love to go out at lunch and just see what different birds show up and study their personalities and how they behave with one another. You noticed some are a little more angry than others when it comes to sharing the food. But I found different things that excite me.
Even reading, I’ve always been someone who reads newspapers and magazines. In the last year, I read like six books, and I can’t even believe that. My whole youth, I’ve probably never read six books, including the ones I’m supposed to read for school. So it just funny how things change a little bit as I’ve aged. Not that I’m old.
Liam: Not at all. Very young. Very young. Very young.
Eric: Barely can drive.
Tara: We should reveal that. Before we started recording we were talking about our ailments – our old age elements and medical cures.
Liam: And Eric said he didn’t have any and he’s not old.
Tara: That’s very true. That’s right.
Eric: I didn’t say I didn’t have ailments, but I’m not old.
Liam: Probably the youngest guests we’ve had on the show, I think.
Eric: My mom just let me come on.
Tara: And you’ve been working for yourself for 20 years so mmh.
Liam: Second grade.
Eric: It could happen.
Liam: You’re living proof. You’re living proof.
Liam: Eric, let me ask you a little bit about your engagement involvement with the WordPress community. You’ve talked about you write a lot about how you use WordPress. How do you engage with it in other ways?
Eric: I love going to WordCamps. Generally, I try to stay the ones around my area, Baltimore and Lancaster, occasionally Philadelphia. I really get into just talking with other people about it. I know during the whole Gutenberg thing last year, that was such a controversial thing. So I’ve tried to put a lot of that in my writing. I was trying to be fair, I was trying to be…not taking too many sides, but also pointing out things that I thought were wrong when I thought they were wrong. And hopefully, I didn’t anger too many people on the way of that.
I like talking to other people in the community. Not as much during a WordCamp because I’m kind of shy, to be honest. If you see me at the WordCamps, I’m probably just going to be huddled in the corner watching the presentations. And you’re always welcome to come say hi, but I’m probably not one to come up and purge too many people. But I love doing interviews with folks who are in the community and see what they’ve done and how WordPress helps them further their careers and even their lives.
Liam: Yeah, that’s a great experience of WordCamps to do that. Is there much in the way of our local WordPress community out where you live?
Eric: Yeah, we do have a meetup in town. Unfortunately, it meets on the night, but I can’t get there. But from what I know, we do get about 20 people of a meetup, which is pretty good for our town of like 20,000 people. And we’ve got a nice development community in central PA. I’ve always thought there’s a possibility of a WordCamp here because I think there are a lot of folks that use WordPress and it’s kind of like a confluence of highways and you know…it’s two hours from Philly. It’s two hours from Pittsburgh, it’s hour and a half from Baltimore. So it’s always kind of right there in the middle. So maybe, as I get older and have more time can be something I do want to know.
Tara: Well, Pennsylvania has a good number of WordCamps. So as you mentioned, you’re within driving distance to a couple of good ones. So it’s nice that you’re able to connect with people like us. And on that note, Eric, it’s time for us to wrap up. We are out of time, and it’s gone by really fast. We’ve enjoyed hearing your story and chatting with you. Thanks so much for joining us. Where can people find you online?
Eric: Well, thanks. You can go to my website. It’s karks.com. I’m also on Twitter @karks88. And I’m happy to connect.
Tara: Thanks again for joining us.
Eric: Thank you. I appreciate it.
Liam: Thanks for joining us, Eric. Great chatting with you.
Eric: Thank you. You too, Liam.
Liam: Bye for now.
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