Introducing Corey Brown
Corey is Chief Instigator at Coreyweb, LLC – a full-service design, development (& more) agency that works exclusively with WordPress as a CMS.
Liam: This is Hallway Chats, where we talk with some of the unique people in and around WordPress.
Tara: Together, we meet and chat with folks you may not know about in our community.
Liam: With our guests, we’ll explore stories of living – and of making a living with WordPress.
Tara: And now the conversation begins. This is episode 21.
Tara: Welcome to Hallway Chats, I’m Tara Claeys.
Liam: And I’m Liam Dempsey. Today we’re joined by Corey Brown. Corey is the chief instigator at Coreyweb LLC, a full-service design, development, and more agency. He works exclusively with WordPress as a CMS. He’s been doing web work since 1995 and he says he loved every minute of it. Hi Corey, good morning.
Corey: Hey, good morning. Thanks for having me.
Tara: Hey Corey, good to see you. Welcome to Hallway Chats. Can you tell us a little bit more about yourself after that great intro that Liam shared?
Corey: Sure. I guess what’s interesting is how for my professional career and over my life, it’s how things came together that I didn’t quite expect. As a musician growing up, that was my big passion. But I also had this passion for computers so when I was, I guess, about 11 or 12 years old, I mowed lawns and I did everything I could to make money. I bought one of those Commodore VIC-20s. don’t know if you’re old enough to remember those, but it was one of the first home computers on the market. And I learned BASIC, I took classes and I was writing programs. I kind of put that on the shelf during my high school years because I was all in on music and I ended up majoring music in college. It took a lot of crazy turns from that and ended up becoming a graphic designer which is kind of a family business in my family. I was a third generation graphic designer in my family. That all started out doing everything by hand, the old-fashioned way, the way my grandfather did and my father did. Then suddenly the Mac came on, so here I am again, computers. And I’ve always loved technology, so the graphic design world and getting on the Mac and learning all that brought me to the web at ’95. I was the art director of [a catalogue company. The CEO came down to my office and said, “We need a website.” I was like, “Okay.” I didn’t know anything about it and I love telling a story that, like, the web was so tiny, nobody cared, there was no book on HTML back then. There was no market for any of that because it was so tiny. Somebody said, “Oh yeah, there’s this thing called view source. Go to any website you want and view the source and see how they do things.” I started deconstructing sites I liked and learning HTML. At the time, I was really burned out on the whole graphic design world, pretty tired of it. I didn’t like how permanent everything was, I would never sleep at night before we set the catalog to the printer, having nightmares all night about mistakes. I love how on the web there are mistakes but they’re easy to fix.
Tara: Yes, I love that too.
Corey: In ’95 when I started, I said, “This is it. This is the future, this is what I want to do.” It took me about two years to kind of shed my art director duties, I was doing both. Yeah, as soon as I got on the web I loved it and that’s been it ever since.
Tara: I can identify with that. I also lost a lot of sleep over typos in the 5000 brochures that were printed.
Liam: I still freak out. I was doing a little business card for a little church project that was with online printed like a $20 job. I still sent it around for three reviews, “Did I get everybody’s details right?”
Corey: Right, right.
Liam: Once it’s gone, it’s gone. I know it’s lethal printing, it’s all color, it’s just RGB, it can be repeated, it’s not the same four-color or six-color jobs like they used to be and you had to go to print inspections which were fantastically fun if not a little stressful. But yeah, there’s no getting it back and it’s expensive. You can’t just log in to the printing press and change the 700 that have already come off the printer to redo it. I get that. And like you, the flexibility of the web was really neat, but I wonder, did it also kind of scare you and frustrate you a little bit? By that, I mean when you were working in Quark or PageMaker when you put the logo there, it stayed there. And when you put the image over there, it stayed there. And when you do that on the web, especially as the web began to evolve, it moved and you had to accept a certain– well, it’s supposed to kind of do that. It didn’t have that permanency and that caused me some stress. It took a while to get used to that. I wonder how you engaged with that phenomenon transitioning from print.
Tara: I’m going to add to that too, also, in terms of the lack of control that you have over user experience. Because when you’re used to having a PMS color that you know is going to look the same on all of your materials, when you go on the web, you really have no control, that color is whatever the hex code is but it looks completely different on somebody’s HP laptop as it does on your 27-inch Mac, right? That’s another aspect of the difference you can talk about.
Tara: Don’t forget now the Notch, we have to also have the Notch. It’s more and more.
Corey: It was easier when it was mobile and computer, desktop or whatever. Now it’s a million different devices in between. When you think about it’s like, no big deal, but it was a big deal because this was all new and all new stepping stones. Even responsive kind of fried my brain at the beginning. You think back now and you’re like, “Well, it’s straightforward and we’ve learned it.” But those shifts were pretty monumental for a lot of people.
Liam: Yeah, I think every two years or so there would be a fundamental change of, “Oh yeah, I’ve been doing it for about a year and a half. I got this now, this is good. Wait, wait, what? There’s another memo, we’re changing what?” It keeps you mobile, keeps you agile, keeps you moving. Let me ask you about this, we’ve talked about the early days of transitioning out of print design and getting into web design and the challenges and fun around there. In our introduction, we heard about how you now work exclusively with WordPress as with CMS. Tell us about that? Where did you first stumble upon or specifically look for WordPress and what drew you to it? This is kind of an increasingly long question but then maybe even touch on, as you get through it a little bit, what are you doing with it now?
Corey: Sure. I downloaded WordPress pretty much at the beginning, I guess it was 2003 maybe, somewhere in there and probably a lot of people– it was for blogging and I thought, “Hey, I’m going to dip my toes in this water.” I’m a terrible blogger but I decided to start a blog so I downloaded it. I wasn’t great at PHP but I’ve always been fascinated with content management, and even though it had that sole focus of being a blog, I knew front-end so I could manipulate certain things about it but I think– it was one of those overwhelming moments for me. Like, oh, my skillset isn’t comprehensive enough to do what I want to do. I always tinkered with WordPress, back in those days I’ve done a lot with content management, I’m working with a lot of content managers and people with actual library science degrees and backgrounds in that. I started talking to the developers at the time about how content management was so, I guess, the way I always viewed it was content management systems made sense to programmers and they made no sense to content managers. I said to a lot of programmers, “I think we should build a content management system that is oriented towards content managers.” Thankfully, I didn’t do that. As WordPress matured, I think it was version 2.9 that came out in ’08 maybe, something in that range, where custom post sites was introduced. As soon as that happened, I said, “Okay, there’s no looking back now.” To me, that’s when WordPress became a full-fledged content management system. So I started to seriously look at that. The reason that we’re exclusively WordPress is, A, we love it, and we’ve yet to find a problem we can’t solve with WordPress in an elegant way, in a way the content manager will say to us, “Wow, that was really easy.” It’s really easy to add content. And I’m not talking about posts and pages. I’m talking about the specialty stuff, where custom post types come into play especially. That’s our primary goal, we want our clients to be very happy, we want the content managers who are not designers, who are not programmers to be able to say, “I can add this, I know how to add this and it’s going to look beautiful, and it’s going to function correctly. But I’m just filling the blanks and uploading media and choosing settings that I want. And I understand this from a concept perspective. I don’t have to understand what’s going on with the design or the functions.” The other reason– as far as my clients go and prospective clients, I’m definitely on WordPress advantage lists and can barely talk to them about that. The way I look at the web is, if there’s a leading platform, framework, whatever, I do really know my developers a lot to make decisions as to what we’re going to use. But when I see something– WordPress has 29% of the market now. I think Drupal has 1-1.5%, and it’s not a knock on Drupal, I don’t get into the– it’s like discussing politics or religion. “I’m not going to sway buddy, if you love Drupal, you love Drupal. And if that works for you, hey, I support that. Rock on. If that’s what’s working for you, I’ll never tell you that’s lousy and WordPress is so much better. That’s my view.” I mean, I don’t think Drupal’s lousy but I think WordPress is so great. When I look at– we use Bootstrap for front-end, it’s the number one Github project, I just learn one framework instead of a project. We use WordPress, we use SASS, we use a lot of things that the way I look at it is, I can go find the people who understand this and who work with this, I don’t have to train them on the framework. I just have to train them on our workflow and our philosophy, that’s much easier to train and say, “Oh, learn is proprietary front-end framework. We’ve built–” Versus, “You know Bootstrap?”, “Yeah.”, “Have at it.” I’ve always been drawn to what’s the dominance, that’s out there. It’s always worked out for me because, like I said, there’s talent everywhere, there’s resources out there, there’s a lot of people looking at these problems, WordPress is constantly improving. Bootstrap is moving forward. There’s a foundation out there which a lot of people love, but not as many use it as Bootstrap. So that’s my thinking, it’s an easy argument to say to a client, “Hey, if we vanish, it’s not like you have some proprietary thing that nobody’s going to be able to figure out. You can find a WordPress person that can take this over.” We’re not going anywhere but, you know, that gives people comfort. I might have something crazy weird proprietary thing that some developer is going to come and say, “This is garbage. I don’t understand.”
Tara: Yeah. It sounds like you have a team that works with you, you have some developers. Can you talk a little bit about your business, what type of clients you have, and how you’ve gone from being the art director of a catalog to having your own web agency all that you learned but how do you find clients and to talk a little bit about your business development and your structuring agency?
Corey: Sure. The good thing about working in an industry for 22 years is you meet a lot of people. So we don’t have sales staff and I’m probably the worst salesperson ever in terms of cold calling and knocking on doors. All of our work comes via word of mouth. We’ll have clients, we’ll work with people and then they’ll move on or they’ll hear from somebody they know at a different company, they’re looking for this and that, and so we get a lot of recommendations that way. I just want to do great WordPress development and design, and discovery and those sorts of things for clients. We’ve kind of fallen into this, we’re getting into the association marketplace here in the DC Metro area. We’re doing a fair amount of the fashion world now, and we’re doing some pretty cool stuff and in the world of music. It’s interesting how we didn’t have this identity of like, “Oh, we’re going to go after this verticle or that verticle.” Certainly, we picked we want to do WordPress development and that’s what we want to do for our clients. It’s not all we do but as far as development and content management system, that’s what we do. It’s really happened organically, I started the company with Seth Godin in 2005 and that became a really big website, it was called Squidoo. It was acquired in 2014. Those nine years that I did that, it was seven days a week. I didn’t have time for any consulting or anything else, so when it was acquired in August 2014, I was so burned out, I didn’t know what to do. I actually said to people, “I don’t know if I want to be in web anymore.” That’s how burned out I was. So I was just sitting around and trying to figure out what am I going to do for a living, what am I going to do at all. And I was getting pinged by some company that said, “We need your help.” The reason that my company’s named what it is is because it was me. I’m a web consultant and people call me and say, “Hey, we have some web problems we need to solve. Can you help us?” And I said, “Yeah.” And then it just grew organically because they’re saying, “Oh, we need this, we need that.” I’m like, “Oh, I know a guy, I know a person.” So I started bringing together this team but it’s basically just growing that way and keeping everybody busy. I’d love to say like, “Hey, I set out to do this, it happened, I didn’t really do it, it’s very organic.”
Liam: That’s really neat, the way that that’s wound up for you. Let me ask you one of our bigger questions then. We’ve talked about how you got started, we’ve talked about the success you have with Squidoo, you’ve talked about getting burned out and wondering if the internet was even right for you anymore. Then you’re into something new and you’ve got the passion for the web again and we can tell from your voice and from the look on your face when you’re talking about that, you really are enjoying it. I wonder if you can share with us your definition of success, be it personal, professional, a mix of both?
Corey: For me, it’s collaboration. I love working with people, and I think I was about 22 years old when I became an assistant art director, I got a promotion. My dad was an art director for 30 years and I freaked out, I was 22 and I was like, “What I do? I don’t want to screw this up.” And my dad said– and I took this through my entire career, my dad said, “If you’re in the position of hiring people, hire people better than you and let them do their thing.” Surround yourself with the very best people you can. And I had bosses to that point that thought the opposite, thought that if their direct reports knew more than them, that was going to harm them somehow. And we talked about it a lot and so I started doing that and I started to see how, as a manager, as a leader, I was actually looking great because look at how great my team is. And I enjoyed it and I was never threatened by somebody else’s knowledge. I was a great front-end developer for a long time. I am not now, it’s changed so much and unless you’re doing it every day– and we’re working with the greatest front-end developer, I’ve been working with him for a decade. He studies this stuff every day, he’s solving problems every day. And I’ll go to him and I’ll say, “Look, we need to do this.” But it’s a collaboration, it’s not like me saying, “Do it my way or do it this way.” If he knows there’s a snafu in there or if there’s a better way, I want to hear it and I’ll relate that back to the client and explain to them why we want to do this, we want to give them the choice but– I love that, I love working with WordPress developers who can do anything, and certainly, plenty of things that I can’t do.
Liam: I know that feeling.
Corey: It just makes us stronger and I learned so much from these people. When I’m in a potential client meeting, having all these conversations, even though I don’t know necessarily how to solve their problems exactly, I know kind of the area to either steer them towards or steer them away from because these collaborations I’ve had for years and hearing WordPress developer say, “Yeah, that’s kind of not the great path to be on.” Like I said, it just makes us so much stronger and so much better to have that. For everybody that works in whatever role they work and they own that, they’re in charge of that. I try to pretend like they’re my boss, they’re going to tell me the way it’s going to be done. All I know is what the end goal is and as long as we’re adhering to that end goal, it’s up to them how to do it.
Liam: How you get there. With that definition and with that real commitment to collaboration and support of the team, what’s the single most important thing you do to achieve that success every day?
Corey: I think probably my best role at the company is in writing the specs. I meet with the clients, I guide them on strategy, they know what their goals are, they know whether– I extract things from them like their adding segments, their goals. Most of the time, they’re not web people so I’m solving, “This is what you want to do, and this is how we can do it on the web.” And once we get consensus with the client, then I write a lot of specs for the team. It is an opportunity to collaborate on– but before the specs are written, I really work with them to make sure that anything they’re expecting is not one of those snafus. Yeah, I’d say that it’s the specs, it’s the blueprint. Because all I want them to do is do their job and not have to ask me a million questions about what did they mean here, what did you mean here. Starting off a project with real clarity, letting them break down the tasks and go from there.
Tara: I want to go back to something that you said about hiring people who are better than you and relating back to your challenge that you’re laying out specs and how you organize your company. One of the questions that we ask you’ve actually already answered even though we hadn’t asked it, which is about the piece of advice you may have been given. And when your dad told you to hire people better than you, can you talk about how you do that? Because I find in the WordPress community, there are so many amazing people that I would love to collaborate with. We have so many great opportunities to connect on Slack or social media, at WordCamps, at meetups and things like that. What’s your process in finding and hiring these great people? Can you share that with us? It sounds like you’re good at it.
Corey: Yeah, I don’t know if I can say I’m good at it. 22 years experience in the web business, I know people who know people so it’s a lot of word of mouth just how we pick up business. There’s a lot of word of mouth there. I worked with so many people over 22 years and I know this person is doing a lot of really amazing WordPress work. Typically, I’d just reach out to them and say, “Hey, I have a project that you’re going to be interested, here’s some specs.”
Tara: So they’re working with you, collaborating with you on a project basis, not as employees necessarily?
Corey: Yeah, I had a web company late ’90s, early 2000s and then I merged into another company, but we had payroll, 401k, computers. After that, I said I’ll never going to do it again, so we’re complete virtual agency which is really cool. Still, the people that I work with, they’re working full-time for me basically, but they’re free to do their own projects as well. And I tell my clients, “You’re not paying for overhead, you’re paying for actual work.” Because I don’t have to pay the front-end person if the front-end is done. And I would have to if he’s on salary.
Tara: Yeah, it makes a lot of sense. Then you can pay them more which inspires them to want to work with you more. That’s a smart strategy. I’ve know we’re coming up on the end here soon, but I would love to hear a little bit or have you tell people a little bit about your music. You said you were a music major in college. And actually, a lot of WordPress, a lot of developers seem to have some kind of musical background or a musical talent, I think there’s some brain connection there. Can you tell us just a little bit about what you do with music and how that’s a part of your life?
Corey: Yeah. I call myself a bass player, I played several instruments growing up and I majored in composition in college. I never finished college. The way I kind of tie it all together is the project I certainly learned the most about WordPress on launched or started in 2008, I think, maybe before that. It’s an online magazine for bass players called No Treble. And it’s pretty big now.
Liam: It’s pretty awesome.
Corey: 280,000 visits a month. It’s all for bass players, that’s it. It was the way to kind of merge all my passions into one project. WordPress, bass .. and so we have this great and growing team of contributors. It’s an online magazine, we publish a lot every day and have a great Facebook presence and all that. It’s also a lab for me. I talk to my clients a lot about the things that we learn on No Treble. Even though a lot of them don’t understand music for bass, they get the tactics and the outcome, and they think it’s kind of cool in a way, so yes.
Tara: That is cool. That’s great. Are you in a band?
Corey: No. I’m running two companies so it’s something I can’t– the bar band thing, I would love to do it but, you know, Thursday to Sunday night playing in bars and stuff like that. I’m an ‘early to bed early to rise’ guy. I’m up five in the morning.
Tara: Yeah, I know. It gets hard as we get older too especially.
Corey: I’d be getting home at four in the morning I was gigging.
Tara: Yeah, do you use to do that?
Corey: Yeah, I played a lot growing up. I love it. Like I said, if I can find a band that was full of people like me that don’t have this aspiration to gig and drive. The big joke is musicians drives a $500 car loaded with $20,000 musical equipment, 100 miles to make $50. [laughter] And the money doesn’t matter to me. I would do it because I love it but it’s a grind, and it’s too much of a grind for a guy that runs two businesses.
Tara: Yeah, I’m fascinated by the connection between web development and music because it just seems like there’s the dependence of people who both transitioned from music into development.
Corey: There’s actually a great story in the ’90s when the .com craze was happening, they couldn’t find developers. I remember reading this article where they have found that musicians were the best non-programmer candidates for becoming programmers, and it was because, if I remember correctly, reading music uses the same part of the brain as to write code, because it’s translating something that isn’t the right word.
Tara: It makes sense, it totally makes sense. My son’s studying music in school and they’re teaching him some computer stuff and I’m thrilled because I can see that he could possibly have that trajectory as well, which I make money at.
Corey: Nice fallback.
Liam: The intertwining of the mechanics of writing code, the mechanics of putting your fingers on the instrument on the right place and lifting them off at the right structure. That’s a routine and that’s a learnable thing, and it’s a skillset, it’s a knowledge base, it’s a knowledge-driven skill. But ultimately, when done correctly, it’s quite beautiful and it creates artform. I think the same can be said of code. I’m no parts developer, I’m a designer, I do almost no code these days. But the idea of a series of symbols, and commas, and semicolons ultimately deliver a beautiful web page or a web app or put astronauts in the space. That’s absolutely art.
Tara: I think we need to wrap up, we just keep talking but it’s been great having around Corey, thank you so much for joining us.
Corey: It was my pleasure, Thanks so much.
Liam: Corey, before we say goodbye to you, sorry to interrupt you again Tara, can you share with us where people can find you online?
Corey: Coreyweb.com and Coreybrown.ni are two places, and of course, Notreble.com.
Liam: Excellent. And I can attest to the value of No Treble’s content. I’m a regular, if not silent visitor, and I get a lot of Youtube videos from that website.
Tara: Did Megan Trainor ruin that for you with that song? Doesn’t she have a song called No Treble?
Corey: She did. And we were five years old when that song came out and I said, “Look, I just want a penny per track.” [laughter] Thankfully, people don’t think of that song near as much but we were hearing about it every day.
Tara: Well, see, now it’s in my head and it’s probably going to be in everybody’s head who’s listening to this.
Liam: But don’t. Just go to the site. It’s beautiful, and the range of it is awesome too. I really like the content that you’re putting out on the site isn’t just this genre or that genre, it goes up and down. Thank you for all your work there, I appreciate it.
Corey: Thank you.
Tara: Bye Corey.
Corey: Thank you, bye.
Liam: Thank you.
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