Introducing Becky Davis
Becky runs her own WordPress business and is active in the WordPress community. She has spoken at many WordCamps all over the US and at WordCamp Europe in 2016. She has run the Chicago Northside WordPress Meetup for six years.
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Tara: And now the conversation begins. This is episode 13. Welcome to Hallway Chats, I’m Tara Claeys.
Liam: And I’m Liam Dempsey. Today, we’re joined by Becky Davis. Becky is active in the WordPress community, has spoken at many WordCamps all over the USA. She has even spoken at WordCamp Europe in 2016. She runs the Chicago Northside WordPress Meetup and has done so for six years. She’s a big advocate for sharing knowledge and trading clients. Excitingly, she’s approaching her 10-year anniversary of running her own business. Hi, Becky.
Becky: Good morning.
Tara: Hi Becky, welcome. Tell us a little bit more about yourself?
Becky: I’m an old lady, my kids are adults and gone, and supporting themselves at this point. I started this business when my son was in high school and here I am 10 years later still making this as living, no regrets.
Liam: That’s great, that’s great, that’s great. Let me ask you, I want to get into how you got into starting your business in a few moments but I’d like to start by just asking you to tell us a little bit about what kind of services your business provides?
Becky: I mostly do custom theme shop, I don’t do ready made themes, I don’t have out-of-the-pocket solutions but I like building– I never understood ready made themes because how does a theme that 10,000 people use work for my content? It just makes no sense to me. I like building unique themes for clients that fit exactly what they need, that fit the kind of content that they have, that they’re willing to work with me so that we get all of the functionality and all of the things showing up there that need to show up, and it works.
Liam: That’s excellent. And then, you said you’re doing front-end development, you’re making custom themes, you’re working with clients. Tell us a little bit about, then, how you started your business and if you could weave into that story, tell us about how you got into WordPress as well?
Becky: Well, 10 years ago, I was an unemployed IT person again. It was a lot of contract work and I was sick of chasing the next contract and I stood up at the ripe age of 48 and said, “What the heck do I want to do?” And I had no answer to that. [laughs] And then I realized that I had never asked the question. I spent 20 years taking care of other people, and when you get in that mode, you don’t think about, “What do I want?” I had a big IT background, I had built an HTML site in ’98 for a law firm. You know, with the red rounded marble corners, remember those in Notepad?
Becky: [laughs] And I had worked for some photographers briefly so I knew Photoshop pretty well, and I started looking at web building and I was like, “Oh, this kind of combines all the stuff that I already know how to do.” And of course, there are 10 million things more to learn and I’m still learning every day. It started slowly. I think I did my first site for 500 bucks.
Liam: I think a lot of us do that.
Becky: Yeah. Well, you have to. I learned a really important lesson with that one, not the lack of money but she and I went back and forth on the shade of purple 20 times. I was like, “Oh, how bogged down in this detail do we need to get and it’s such a big difference whether it’s your CRT or it’s my black screen?” That print design is so– I can pick the paper, I can pick the ink, I can pick the layout, I can do anything I want and I can guarantee that everyone will get the same experience. And web design is so opposite of that it’s a different experience for everyone all the time. That’s a hard thing for clients to accept and understand.
Liam: Yeah, especially in 2007 where not everybody was online, smartphones were sporadic at best. It was a real apparent point of transition. Speaking of transition, did you jump right into WordPress or did you start with static HTML and transitioned a little by little? Take us through that.
Becky: I started with static HTML, I built a few sites for small businesses and one for my mom. My mom, she just passed away last summer but she in her retirement painted needlepoint canvases and sold them to shops all over the country. She had a collection of 300 pieces and I spent two days in my old bedroom taking pictures of these canvases and built a site for her, and showed her to use the mouse in the process. [laughter] She was actually a pretty good for a client because she was accepting of everything that I did without questioning it.
Tara: What a nice way to remember her and memorialize her then, that’s a great thing about the web, right? It’s timeless.
Becky: Exactly. Yeah, WordPress, my dad was a poet and political activist and liked to rant and write, and I thought it would be a good present for him to have a blog where he could do that, and that was how I got into WordPress.
Liam: That’s the best WordPress intro story I’ve ever heard, thank you.
Becky: [laughs] And I picked the horrible crappy theme and I installed it and then I had no clue what was going on. I spent two hours on a phone with the woman while she was trying to get the info to work properly. Then I spent, I don’t know, six weeks to try– you have to try to– poetry is very weird in its layout. Some lines go in, some lines go out, that kind of thing. I spent six weeks transposing an entire book of his onto the web. I felt pretty familiar with the 2.7 interface at that point and I guess I never looked back at that point because that was a question I had even in early HTML classes, how do clients update? How do they change their phone number, how do they do this without having to call me and pay me money? There wasn’t a good answer for that, and then when I found WordPress I picked it as the answer. That was in late 2008 or early 2009 when I got into WordPress so I had been doing HTML for about a year, and it was just a natural progression. Then there were another two years of people wanting other stuff. “Oh, I want a store.” Or, “I want membership. I want–” I was like, “No, WordPress can’t do that.” Then I stopped saying no. A lot of things happened in time tree between eight and ten. So many more plugins were available, so much more functionality was available, the whole community was growing, that the minute I stopped saying no, all of a sudden, it was like, “Hmm.” And that, sure, got me find out, and voila, there would be an answer or there would be a plugin I’ve never heard of that solves this issue. It was pretty incredible. Then things really exploded. Business exploded and I exploded, I rode that WordPress tsunami without even realizing that I was on it. But I just got paid more and I have clients all the time who are pushing me this way, that way, “How come it doesn’t do it this way?” And this is why I get so involved with plugin developers and other things because it’s like, “Yeah, you really should allow for this.”
Liam: At times like that, that very pivotal mindset change that you’ve made, and I’m going to ask you if it was deliberate or just kind of gradual over time, but when you were making that was a hugely pivotal time in web technology, right? As eight, and nine, and ten was coming, all the services that we consider old-school web were really just starting to get user-friendly, starting to get mass updates. I wonder about your mindset as you made that transition, and then you said it’s really so influential in your business and helped you grow. I wonder how else you might have carried that through in your life, that ‘don’t say no’ approach.
Becky: It was a conscious decision. I can’t tell you what day I made it or did it happen all at once, I’m sure it was a process but it was very much conscious decision because I realized that even if I didn’t know the answer at the beginning of the project, that I had a 90% chance of solving it by the end of the project. And how much more can I learn and how much more can I do on the next project if I conquer this, if I learn this? It’s led me down some pretty interesting roads. I did a huge redesign of very complex sites and it’s still very complex, 1000 quotes, multi-language, big medical technology terms and whatever, and the old site, you couldn’t find a thing. Every landing page had a different layout, every search was useless. It was just a mess. I forced a client to hire a UX person to help us reconfigure this site. She comes back with wireframes with facets on them, and I’m on a five-person phone call with the clients, and the UX person, and the designer. I’m looking at these facets and I’m like, “Can WordPress do that?” My brain blew up. [laughter] It just blew up, I was like, “I don’t know if I can do that.” Then while I’m still on the conversation I just googled ‘facets WordPress’, and found the plugin, FacetsWP which is amazing. I was like, “I guess I can do that.” And that’s the benefit of not saying no.
Tara: Yeah, it’s a great thing about WordPress too, is that usually if you ask the question, “Can you do it with WordPress?” Usually, you can.
Liam: Becky, when you were talking about your decision to transition out of IT consultancy and into something new, you had said that you never really asked yourself, “What do I want to do?” And that’s so particularly poignant and I wonder about then as you’ve gone through your WordPress career, owning your business you’ve changed this pivotal mindset where you don’t say no anymore. Can you share with us your definition of success and maybe touch on personal success, professional success, and how those intertwine for you?
Becky: Sure. Professional success is making a living, it’s as simple as that. I a nice apartment in Chicago, my kids are out and gone, I don’t have a lot of other expenses and I’m quite comfortable. I don’t work 60 hours a week either, and that’s fine. I actually take the weekends off. That’s part of my success, if I can go 48 hours without looking at email, that’s a success. I’m a big believer in, when you spend your entire day in front of a screen you should get away from the screen on a regular basis.
Becky: That’s all success to me. I’m in a good place professionally.
Tara: That’s excellent. I’m happy for you, that’s great. It’s great to hear that you have some discipline in your time and that you take weekends off, and that you don’t work the crazy hours a lot of people work these days, and I like to hear that you don’t live in your email inbox. Out of all the things that you do every day, what would you say is the most important thing that you do? And then, following up on that, what is your favorite thing? Whether or not those are the same or not, it’s a question.
Becky: Wow, that’s hard. Most important thing I probably do is that I do a stretching program every morning because you sleep all night and sit all day. I try to keep as active as I can. That way, it’s now summer here so I’m now on my bike and my poor car is feeling neglected. That kind of thing. What I like to do, I’m a big old movies fan, I like to knit. I like to get out with friends on a Friday night. The downside to what I do is that it’s isolating, I don’t have the cubicle chatter. I actually work better without it, it’s better but I have to make the effort to go seek to move.
Tara: With that in mind, I know that you are involved in the WordPress community in your area. What is that meant to you and how have you introduced yourself to that community and brought people into it with you?
Becky: I really enjoyed running the Meetup. I’ve met a ton of interesting people there, and the friends that I reach out to for help often come from that source. I often get work from that source which I’ve never ever expected. WordPress is a tribe at this point and it’s very much about being inclusive and sharing the knowledge, and I like to do that as much as I can on this micro-local level and encourage people to get up and do a presentation and whatever, and it can be hard. Women, in particular, are very shy about speaking and I am always encouraging women in my group to get up and do a talk. I’ve been talking to them for three years and I haven’t talked them into it yet. Some of them might meet once and they get up to talk in the next session and it’s awesome.
Liam: Becky, Tara and I both run WordPress Meetups at our own necks of the woods as it were. I’d love to hear your thoughts, aside from chatting supportively with women who are interested or you think would be good to get into speaking at WordPress Meetups and WordCamps. What other tips or techniques can you share with us around supporting those communities, those individuals within the community who we know they have it in them but we want to help them get to where they’re at a point to not say no, to use your mindset?
Becky: It’s a challenge. There was a lovely presentation at WordCamp Europe in Vienna last summer called the Imposter Syndrome. It’s out on WordPress TV, I encourage everyone to see that because-
Tara: That was Sonya?
Becky: Yes, we will all recognized ourselves in this. And I think with women, in particular– and this is a broad generalization, but a guy will get up when he just learned something new whether he knows everything about it or not because he’s excited, he thinks he’s a rock star, he’s got that confidence. A woman feels like she has to know inside, out, backward, and forwards before she can even think about sharing that knowledge. I think that very much ties into that imposter syndrome of, “Oh, I don’t know as much as she. I can’t possibly share anything.” I like to get everyone to talk but I like to encourage, particularly– and as a group, we’re all introverts, right? We’re all a little shy so I try to encourage it as much as I can sometimes. Sometimes I’m successful and sometimes I’m not.
Tara: I think that’s important. I remember the first few times that I went to my local Meetup here and someone asked me if I would speak and I started with a five-minute lightning talk. What I discovered was that it took a lot of guts to do that but it also forced me to gain confidence because I had to learn something more in order to speak about it. I think it’s a great way to learn is to sign up to speak about something that you may have a pretty good knowledge of, but then once you are on the hot seat, you really have to know it better. It’s a great way to learn as well, I think. In your business, it sounds like you have– you’ve been running your business for quite a while and have done a wide variety of projects. What would you say is the biggest challenge in running your own business?
Becky: Well, part of not working 60 hours or 80 hours a week is understanding that even when you try to work just normal hours– yes, I get dressed in the morning and I sit down at ten o’clock in the morning and I’m usually here until five or six. Is understanding that even half of those hours that you were in front of the computer are billable, you’ve had a good day. There are many, many things that aren’t billable, producing bills is one of them, dealing with the massive amounts of emails, putting out little fires in the morning. Yes, you can bill a lot of those things but a lot of them you just can’t. Sometimes you’re just in research mode. “I need this to figure this out.” But it took me a while to realize that, oh, I only billed 14 hours this week. But that’s why I charge what I charge and I’m still making a living and that’s okay.
Liam: Yeah, convincing yourself of the value of that balance and the tradeoff, and that it’s not a numbers– I mean, it is ultimately a numbers game, right? Rent is about having enough money to pay the rent or the mortgage, right? When you get hungry, it’s hard if you don’t have some numbers in your bank account. But to get to your point, to see that bigger picture around the balance of it all and, “I only did 14 hours of billable.” For example, “But that covered the bills. I’d love to do 18 or 20 but 12 is what I need to meet my bills.” Tell me a little bit about how long it took you to kind of come to this understanding of how it all works in a way that keeps you healthy, keeps you in a position, getting out to do your morning stretches and to spend time with your friends outside of your work?
Becky: First 18 months of making this commitment that I’m not working for work, I am working for myself, and that was a mindset change right there, were a bit of a struggle. I was in a lucky place that I had enough savings reserved that I could pay the rent. During that time I gave myself three years, five years max, to make this work. In 18 months I was doing well, in two years I was doing pretty well. Then, of course, I had– and anybody who’s been in this business knows this happens is that you grow exponentially in your third year, right? Then things kind of kind of level off, but there was that one year where I had 70% increase in income and I was like, “Whoo.” [laughs]
Liam: That’s nice.
Becky: Yeah, yeah. But then there’s always so much you can do. I have been blessed with one giant client who keeps me busy month in, month out. Whether we’re doing redesigns or just regular maintenance, and then I take two of those four bigger projects with different clients every year, and that’s enough, I’m happy. I can stop at six and have dinner, and decompress, and not work on the weekends. I can’t say I never worked on a weekend. Of course, we all have. And everybody is like, “Oh, you get to work in your pajamas.” It’s like, “No, I get up, I get dressed, this is work. I’m in my office, this is work.” The only time I’m in pajamas is when it’s a Sunday and something has come up, and I’m not happy about it.
Tara: Yeah. Do you provide maintenance to your clients after you’ve built their sites?
Becky: Kind of up to the client but I do quite a bit of maintenance. I have half a dozen smaller sites that I just have a yearly contract with and go in four or five times a year and just keep things updated. There’s not that much going on and that’s all they really need. My bigger more complex sites, I’m in every month to make sure everything is still working and keeping it updated and then they are always changing something anyway. Some clients leave and I don’t do maintenance. I like to empower the client to do as much as they want to do. I want them to add their own content and, actually, I want them to add their own content while we’re in development because that’s where the questions come up. “Oh, we really need this. How about if this worked this way?” And we can solve that before the launch. Then by the launch, they’re super comfortable with what’s going on.
Liam: So they understand the flow and the inner workings of the content.
Becky: Right. I don’t know how you learned but I know I learned by doing. I did that for three or four years, that 90-minute lesson at the end. “Here’s your site and here’s where you log in, here’s where posts are, here’s where are the pages.” And everybody shakes their head and six weeks later they remember nothing. Then they’re frustrated, “Oh, WordPress is too hard.” But if I get the editors, the people who are going to continue editing the site, involved during development, then they’ve done it all. They’ve added ten things, they’ve played with the menu, they understand how this works. And the comfort level is super high. Then when there’s questions they know they can come back to me, that’s as an always paying. But they don’t have to come to me every time when they need to add an event, they just have the event, they know how it works.
Liam: You support them to have their own workflows but when they need little help you’re there, but they’re not asking for every little thing. That’s a great approach – I like that.
Becky: Right, right. And then maintenance kind of flows into that. Do they want to be responsible for updating plugins and whatever? A lot of them are, particularly with the more complex sites I discourage that a little bit. “Let’s have a staging site, let me do the testing.” Because the minute we get past, what? What’s the magic number? There is no magic number but the minute we get past a certain level of complexity, updates, and in fact, other things that you couldn’t even realize, that kind of thing. But if they want to do it themselves, I ought to show them how. I’m all for it.
Liam: That’s great. Let me transition to one of our big questions I really like to ask. What is the single most valuable piece of advice, it can be either personal or professional or maybe a combination of both, that you have received and worked into your life?
Becky: I don’t know if I have an answer for that. [laughs]
Liam: It’s a big question.
Becky: It’s a big question. I can think of little things. Honestly, the ‘don’t say no’. I think that– always look for a new answer, always keep learning, never say something is impossible without doing some research. You never know.
Liam: Is that a mindset, is that a take that you came to on your own? Was it somebody shared it with you, was it some reading, was it some internal introspection? How did you come to that?
Becky: I think it’s more my own personal exploration of my life. Years I’ve spent doing helpdesk IT work where by the time you get to somebody’s desk, they’re already angry and embarrassed, it can be very challenging. When you say no to those people, they get immediately way more obsessive than they would under normal circumstances because they’re already upset.
Becky: That was a long learning curve for me to understand– because I can sit down at somebody’s desk and they’ve got a problem, and I’m looking at the screen, and I see the problem, and I can curse under my breath and say, “What’s going on here?” I actually had a woman take that personal, she thought I was yelling at her. That makes you think, that wasn’t personal, I was aggravated at the problem, not at you. But that was a big deal for me to separate that and change how people view me. I can be a little abrasive sometimes. It’s never personal but sometimes it gets seen in that way. That’s part of not saying no. When somebody is asking for help and I’m too busy and I just say no, it’s a complete shut down, it’s a complete turn off.
Liam: So having that awareness to know what you’re doing and how it’s affecting others?
Tara: Yeah. Trying to avoid the knee jerk reaction which is really tempting to do when you’re facing the situation like that, yeah, being patient.
Becky: It’s so easy. You know.
Tara: Right, right. Becky, we are coming up on the end of our time with you. It’s been great talking to you, though, and I loved hearing about your journey and I don’t think you’re an old lady, by the way. I think you’re selling yourself short, I have to say. I have two adult children as well. [laughter]
Becky: You look at the web development world, and it’s 80% guys, and 80% of them are in their 30’s. I’m this girl in her 50’s.
Tara: That’s awesome.
Becky: Wow. And that’s one of the things I like about the tribe of WordPress as well is that there’s way more of me in this group than there are in Drupal or any other group of this nature. That’s why I like to encourage the ladies in my Meetup as much as I can.
Tara: That’s great. Thank you for sharing with us.
Liam: Great conversation.
Becky: This has been a lot of fun.
Liam: Becky, before we officially say goodbye to you, could you share with us, while we’re still recording here, where people can find you online?
Becky: Oh, Beckydavisdesign.com. It’s my site and yes, there’s a contact form but if you’re looking for a quote and you haven’t filled out my four-page Word document, I may or may not get back to you. [laughs] I like clients to work from the very beginning. “What is it that you want? What is it that you’re trying to do?” And I force them to use this and I try to do it as a web form and it never works out but, you know, it’s a four-page document. I want you to spend two days filling it out. I want you to think about that first. I need you to be involved in this project.
Liam: That’s an important emphasis, I like that.
Tara: Yes, thank you for joining us, Becky.
Liam: Thanks so much, Becky.
Becky: Thank you, it’s been a pleasure. You guys have a lovely morning, talk to you soon.
Liam: We’ll talk to you soon, bye, bye.
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