Introducing Topher DeRosia
Topher DeRosia is a Christian, husband, father, and WordPress developer in that order. By day, he runs iWitness Design with his business partner. Topher also curates HeroPress.com, a site that tells the stories of WordPress.
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Tara: And now the conversation begins. This is episode 30.
Liam: Welcome to Hallway Chats. I’m Liam Dempsey.
Tara: And I’m Tara Claeys. Today, we’re joined by Topher DeRosia. Topher is a Christian, husband, father, and WordPress developer in that order. By day, he runs iWitness Design with his partner, Tanner Moushey, and he also curates HeroPress.com, a site that tells the stories of WordPress. Hi Topher, welcome.
Topher: Howdy, thanks for having me.
Liam: You’re very welcome. Thanks for joining us today, Topher. Tell us a little bit more about yourself beyond what Tara just shared about you, please?
Topher: Well, I live in Grand Rapids, Michigan which this year happens to be snowy. It’s not snowy every December but this year’s been particularly snowy, though it rains today so we’re losing some of it. I have a wife, two kids, two dogs, little house in the city. Grand Rapids is not a very big city so when I say in the city, I mean a quiet neighborhood. As Tara mentioned, I’m a WordPress developer. Tanner and I have a company together and so what that means is that I’m doing a lot of administrative work and talking to clients, and marketing, and all the stuff that developers never dreamed of doing and are doing. But it’s all in there when you do a start-up, and it’s definitely been a start-up. We got together almost exactly a year ago, it was January 1st, and it has been a wild rollercoaster of breathtakingly great and horribly, horribly bad. At the moment, it’s great so I’m extremely happy to be here.
Tara: Tell us a little more about that, in terms of forming a partnership. I have a little bit of experience with that and I recall when people heard I was doing that, their first answer, did you ever hear, “Why are you forming a partnership? What are you doing? What are you thinking? Partnership end in divorce.” I heard that all the time, so what motivated you to form a partnership and tell us a little bit about that process? I’m glad to hear it’s going well for you as it is for me.
Topher: Yeah, I ended my time at Modern Tribe last year, about exactly 12 months ago. It was just a couple weeks before Christmas. And I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, and Tanner had two things going on at once. He was a freelancer and he was employing two people, and he was trying to do Sass and client work, and he wanted to do only the Sass. He was going to shut down the client work and he said, “Well, what if Topher came along and picked up the client work and allowed me to do the Sass.” So he pitched it and I said, “Well, that sounds pretty great.” We were just ready to form a partnership and go, and he had a nice long conversation with Pippin who said, “You should wait.” [laughs], “Think about this, practice. Get your feet wet, get used to it.” So we said, “Alright, we’ll wait three months and we’ll see how things are going after three months.” Nothing worked out like anything I’ve just described. He’s not working at his Sass, we’re both still doing client work like mad, we ended up forming the partnership in late November as opposed to March. And we learned a ton, forming a partnership is definitely far more intricate than I expected. There are more things that jump out at you that you can’t possibly expect. But no one can. I mean, I don’t think you can form one partnership and then expect the second one to go the same, it’s different every time.
Tara: Yeah, it’s a little bit intimidating because you have to talk about hard things, it’s sort of like writing a will in a way. All these scenarios, how it plays out, and they say you have to have, I don’t know, like an escape clause or something like that, all these different things that you don’t really want to think about because it’s kind of uncomfortable. But it’s really important to do that in a partnership. And if you can get over that, then I think that makes the partnership stronger, would you agree?
Topher: I would definitely agree. A number of people told me that it’s a lot like getting married, and I took that very literally. We’ve had conversations that included personal family finances. Fortunately, neither he nor I have problems with drugs or alcohol but that conversation needs to happen. If you’re going to form a partnership with somebody, you need to know if that person has ever had an issue with it because maybe it will come back. You never know. We’ve talked about really, really deep things, we’ve talked about our relationships with our spouses, deep levels, not the kind of thing you talk about in a hallway chat but the kind of thing you talk about with a counselor. Because if this thing is going to break my marriage, then I’m going to break the partnership first, and if he relies on me to not break the partnership and I disappear because my marriage is a mess, then the whole thing falls apart. We have had many, many long deep conversations about personal things that just friends don’t necessarily have, unless they’re very close.
Liam: That sounds like you’ve got a pretty solid relationship with Tanner. How did you meet Tanner, was that a WordPress community coming together or personal friends, or some other way?
Topher: It was through the WordPress community. Bits and pieces over a number of years. I saw his name on Twitter once and started following him, then I saw he was going to be at WordCamp Orlando, I think, or Miami, I don’t remember which. It was Miami because we bumped into him at BuddyCamp and he was just on my list of somebody to shake hands with. We said hi and that was pretty much it. Then a couple years ago, Paul, I’ve run a blank on his last name, worked at TenUp for a little while. He sold a company to TenUp. He had a hold of me and said, “Hey, do you want to be in MasterMind meetup?” And Tanner was one of the other people in the group. Once every two weeks, we spent an hour with a group of people and we got to know each other pretty well through that. Because now we are exchanging ideas and, I say beliefs, but it’s more like business beliefs, you know what I mean?
Liam: Kind of a business approach, and angle, and thoughts and philosophy. It’s really interesting. There we go. Topher, you were talking before this show that you’re pretty active in WordPress community and we were talking about that and how that ebbs and flows. But we also know that you mentioned earlier in the introduction that you run HeroPress and I think a lot of people who listen to this show will know what HeroPress is, but tell us a little bit about that? And I know you share the starting story of that and there’s more on WordPress TV, but maybe just skim through that in just a few seconds and talk a little bit about what that is and how that project keeps going and how that all comes together for you.
Topher: Yeah, HeroPress is something that impacts my life in a lot of ways that I would not have expected. A lot of philosophy, a lot of reasons for things I do in my life. Like, why do I do HeroPress? Why do I do that? Why do I keep up with it? The fact that HeroPress started as a failure has been significant to me. It was going to be a business and there was a Kickstarter, and it failed utterly. The entire business plan, we flushed it, it was just gone. And yet, here we are with this other thing because I kept thrilling with it, and playing with it, and twisting it, and kind of letting it be its own thing. I didn’t say HeroPress is going to be this. I just started doing things and it grew into what we have now. There’s that philosophy that failure is not necessarily an end, it’s just a point in the timeline. The philosophy that things should be allowed to grow. Obviously, you want a plan or you want to have your own ideas, and you want to work toward a goal, but don’t be afraid to let go of that goal and pivot, and pivot so many times you get dizzy. Yeah, all those thoughts over the years with HeroPress have impacted my employment, my family, my kids, my house. Every decision I make impacts me like that.
Liam: That’s pretty pervasive effect on your life. Is there one or two HeroPress stories that have had a particularly profound effect on you?
Topher: Haha. Yeah. It’s difficult for me to pick out particular stories because I don’t want to in any way imply that the others are less impactful.
Liam: Of course not. But the individual stories will affect individuals differently, right?
Topher: Sure. There are two that come to mine. One of them is not yet a HeroPress story and I don’t know if it ever will be, but the first one is a young man from Yemen. He and I worked together for about two weeks at XWP. He was in college and took a job and decided, “Oh, I can’t work and school at the same time.” He bailed out and went to school, which is the proper decision, but a while later I asked him to do a HeroPress essay and he said, “I can’t right now. My country is at war and I’m hiding in my basement.” It was, I don’t know, two years before he came back to me and said, “Hey, I can do this now.” He moved out of the capital and was living somewhere else, and was still doing WordPress stuff, still going to school, while his entire country was in flames. That was profound for me.
Tara: He followed up with you afterward, too. It’s quite incredible. You must have had an impact on him as well.
Topher: Well, I try to stay in touch with him. We only talked on Facebook. And if you know me very much, I don’t get on Facebook very much at all. But I got on specifically to find him and say, “Are you okay?” Find out if he’s still alive because I didn’t know. He actually went off the grid for a year and I didn’t know if he was dead or not. The other one is a young woman from Iran, and I don’t know if this one will be a HeroPress story or not. We did a story from a guy in Iran and I said, “Do you know any women doing WordPress?” And he said, “Yeah. Talk to this woman.” I sent her an email and she said, “Yeah, that sounds really great, I’m really interested. I’m a little busy right now, I’ll get back to you in a couple of months.” I said, “Okay, that’s fine. It happens all the time.” And then she didn’t. I sent her an email and I got nothing, she just disappeared. About a year after that, out of the blue, she sent me an email and said, “I have become a Christian, and that’s against the law here. I’ve been staying under the radar and not really to anybody. My family doesn’t know where I am. I have left all my friends and I’m just trying to get by every day.” And it blew my mind, it had nothing to do with WordPress or HeroPress or anything, she just felt the need to tell me this. And I said, “That’s great, I’m happy for you. I hope you make it.” Then one week ago, she sent me another email that said, “I have to leave. I’m going to Turkey right now, I’m leaving. I can’t stay here, it’s not safe.” And that’s all she said, I was envisioning her walking or something, in a refugee train or taking a boat or something, I didn’t know. Then yesterday, she wrote to me and said, “Hey, I’m in Turkey and some people let me sleep on their couch and I’m looking for work. So if you know anybody doing WordPress in Turkey, let me know.” There’s a HeroPress contributor from Turkey so I got a hold of him and I said, “Hey, can you help her out somehow?” That’s up to today, that’s today’s news. It’s not really a WordPress story, it’s not a HeroPress story. It’s a story of life. I know her because of the WordPress community, and she is impacting me because of that relationship. I hope someday that she is able to find good WordPress work and the community helps her bootstrap herself in a new country, and then, by all means, it will be a HeroPress story.
Liam: It sounds like it already is though, right?
Topher: Yeah, but in this case, what changed her life was not WordPress.
Liam: I’m with you.
Topher: The WordPress community might be helping her a little bit right now, just because she knows me. But I haven’t made a meaningful impact yet.
Tara: So, I guess, what is the definition of a HeroPress story, then? Is it someone who’s life has been changed for the better by WordPress or changed–?
Topher: Yeah, by WordPress and/or the community. Here’s an example of one that might seem not quite right. Wendy from Holland, the Netherlands, she was an MC at WordCamp US recently.
Liam: I was lucky enough to meet her, she’s very nice.
Topher: Yes. She is very slightly on the autism scale, had a really difficult time holding on jobs. When she got into WordPress, everything got better. She’s got a good job, she’s happy, she has family, community, everything’s awesome. Her family was a little wary of all of that. “Who are these magic people who make everything all better?” Her sister who lives in Portland, Oregon came to WordCamp US with her to meet us all, to see what this thing is that her sister is doing. I have approached her about doing a HeroPress essay. She’s not a WordPresser, she’s not in our community, she doesn’t do anything with WordPress whatsoever. But her life is being significantly impacted by the WordPress community through her sister. She has spent her life with her sister who just needs a little extra help and has been giving it from family, but now she’s also getting it from all of us, and that’s a relief from the family to know that she found her place in the world. I don’t know if she’s going to do a HeroPress essay or not, I want to have more conversation with her but I can absolutely see somebody– I’m going to pivot slightly here. Carole Olinger from Germany, purple hat.
Topher: She told me her mother is concerned that WordPress is a cult. [laughter] Now, Carole is very capable and responsible and I have no doubt that she can handle all that, but I could see if somebody were slightly on the autism scale, their family wondering if WordPress is a cult. “Who are these people? What are they doing with my family member?” I would enjoy having an existing family member like Wendy’s sister, saying, “WordPress changed my sister’s life and they’re good people, and this is a safe community.”
Liam: Yeah, that’s really neat, that would be a fantastic essay. Let me ask you about the logistics, if I can, of running HeroPress. You’ve shared with us some stories that give a lot of perspective to our western lives that we’re all here in the US relatively comfortable, certainly by some of the comparisons of the stories you shared. Logistically, how do you hear about things? Are people filling out a contact form on your site? Are you hearing stories through Twitter and the WordPress community, people making recommendations? How proactive are you versus responding to incoming contact?
Topher: Incoming contact is very rare. I have a form on the site and I think it’s been used five or six times out of 280 essays. [laughter] Occasionally, someone will say, “Go talk to that person. I just had lunch with them at WordCamp and you have to have that story.” The vast majority of it is me proactively finding somebody, often on Twitter. Somebody will favorite an essay and their name is using any ASCII characters. [laughs] And I think, hmm, they’re not from around here, where are they from? Geographic diversity is very important to me. If I see somebody following HeroPress, who’s from a country that I’ve never heard a story, I’m going to go talk to him and say, “Hey, tell me your story.” And 90% of the time, I get a good story out of it. I think there have been two people who have successfully convinced me that their story is not right for HeroPress out of everybody I’ve ever talked to.
Tara: Wow. And do you have people that say, “No, I’m not comfortable sharing.” Or do they always say yes?
Topher: I have had one person turn me down because she was not comfortable, and one person turn me down because she kept saying yes for several years and finally decided she just didn’t have time and was just going to say no. What that means is almost every single person I talk to about it does it. Another method I have used that I need to use more because it’s great and exciting, GlotPress, the Translate.wordpress.org, lists WordPress users who translate in all those languages. I can go look for someone or look up for whatever language they speak in Kazakhstan and find out who’s doing that translation, and if they don’t want to do it, they know somebody.
Liam: They know somebody who would be a good fit. Topher, let me ask you, and somewhat trying to keep to the format of our show here, can you define for us, and I’m going to ask you to answer in a slightly different way than we ask most of our guests, is, as it pertains to HeroPress, how would you define success?
Topher: Oh, boy. Success would be having an impact on somebody’s life. And what’s interesting is that every single person who’s ever done an essay says to me, “This was deeply significant to me. The act of writing an essay is deeply significant.” By that mark, every essay is a success.
Liam: that’s wonderful, and I see Tara is shaking her head in agreement there, and I know she’s written an essay on HeroPress. So your definition and the explanation of your definition appears, at least for the purpose of this conversation, to be absolutely on the mark. If that is the definition then, what’s the single most important thing you do every day to either make HeroPress a success or maybe to enable success?
Topher: I have to stay on top of finding people and I have to stay on top of getting it out every week.
Liam: No small tasks.
Topher: Yeah. I’m a little behind this week, it comes out tomorrow morning and I have all the stuff, I just need to get it on the site. Typically, I try to get the essay a week ahead of time and the actuality is that it usually comes on Saturday or Sunday. And then on Monday or Tuesday, I pre-publish and schedule it, and then it does its own thing on Wednesday morning. I’m doing something just about every day to move it forward. I’m talking to somebody for the next couple of weeks, I’m working on the existing essay, I’m reminding the person from next week, “Hey, you’re on, don’t forget.”
Liam: That legwork takes a lot of time, doesn’t it?
Topher: It really does. And that is one of the reasons why I put up a donation form, because all of that time is time I’m not spending with my family, and they have been sacrificing that for years now. There were two kinds of donations I was looking for. One is something to help pay the bills through that time, and then the other would be something larger to pay for WordCamps or whatever. But it is time-consuming every day, every week, for years now. But you know, you run a podcast.
Liam: Yeah, for six months. So yeah, we have some history but not like you do. Well, thank you very much for the time and energy that you do put out. I think Tara and I now have some insight into some of the work that you’re doing. And it requires a lot of attention and a lot of persistence, and it absolutely takes up evenings, and it takes up early morning, and it takes up weekends. Thank you very much for that.
Tara: Yeah, but I think what you described when you talked about success and how giving people the opportunity to share their story, and people think all the time, “I don’t really have a story to tell.” And then you give them the opportunity and it really is an introspective time but it’s also validating to realize that you have a story to tell. And I think that’s what Liam and I also enjoy about this podcast is letting people share with us their story but also their perspective on things like success and what’s important to them. And tying in the common thread of WordPress underneath that, although it’s really almost never about WordPress when you’re talking about that.
Topher: Right. I have one more story related to that if we have time.
Liam: Go for it, please do.
Topher: I was doing research about why HeroPress should be, and HeroPress is very significant in India. Indians love HeroPress, and I think it’s partly because it sort of started there. But I wanted to know why, I’ve had people tell me HeroPress is meaningful, it’s important. So I went to some friends in India and I said, “Why? You say it’s meaningful, you say it’s important. Why? Tell me why?” And I got several, very, very interesting diverse deep answers. One of my friends said that India has a history of being a colony and being a colony is a lot like being a slave. In the 1800s, India had a roaring trade in textiles, they were doing things nobody in the world did, and a lot of people patented that stuff in England and came back to India and said, “We own this now. You can’t do it unless you pay us a lot of money.” They just took that away from them, their livelihood, the things they invented, the things they did. At a broader scale in WordPress, open source, in general, is deeply meaningful in India because it can’t be taken away. It’s their own thing, nobody can take it away and say, “This is mine now.” And that includes WordPress. And HeroPress acknowledges that, it acknowledges the work that they’re doing. I have a policy of very minimal editing, I don’t fix poor English. That’s the way they write, that’s them. I’ll fix an occasional misspelling when it’s obvious but that’s about it. And a number of people said, “Really? You’re not going to change my words?” I said, “No, I’m not going to change your words.” And they were like, “That’s amazing. Everybody changes our words, everybody changes what we say to make us be what they want us to be saying.” The idea that WordPress sets an entire people group free from a tradition of conceptual slavery is just mindblowing and giving them the ability to verbalize that, to say that, to stand up, look the world in the eye and say, “Hey, this is us. We’re doing this now and you can’t take it away.” It gives me the chills.
Liam: It’s very profound, isn’t it?
Topher: Yeah. I very often say, “No one is as impacted by HeroPress as me.” Every essay is deep and impressive, and I hear about 80% more of the story than everybody else does. It’s just incredible.
Tara: We appreciate what you’ve started and I think it’s made the WordPress community better, for sure, to have this opportunity for people, but just to put a foundation underneath the community that’s already doing great things for each other, whether it’s technological or not. Sharing our stories, meeting each other.
Topher: That’s a great way to put it. Yeah, I’m not making community, I’m revealing community.
Tara: Yeah. We are going to be out of time but I do want to ask you a question that we ask everyone which is, if you could share with us the single most important piece of advice that you have received?
Topher: [laughs] I saw that question and that’s tough to come up with just one and remember who gave it to me.
Tara: Oh, you don’t have to say that. [laughs]
Topher: One decent advice is to make sure you do your best to make family first, and if you say that to my family, they’d probably laugh because I’m terrible at it. But as bad as I am, if I did not try as hard as I do, it would be worse.
Tara: That’s a very good point. I’ll remind my family of the same thing.
Topher: [laughs] Good call.
Tara: That’s good advice. Thank you for sharing that and thank you for all that you shared with us today. We’re going to wrap it up and have you let us know and let our listeners know where they can find you. We’ve talked about HeroPress but if you can share other ways people can find you?
Topher: Yes. My online handle is topher1kenobe and there’s a number one in the middle there, ends with an E. And that’s my blog address, Topher1kenobe.com and my handle on Slack and every instant messenger that doesn’t exist anymore, IRC, all of them. If you want to find me, topher1kenobe is the way.
Tara: Alright. Thank you so much. It’s really been a highlight for me to have you on the show and talk about community like this because it’s something that means a lot to me, as you know. So thanks for sharing.
Topher: Thanks for having me. I’ve been watching and excited to be here some day, and here I am.
Tara: Thank you, thanks.
Liam: Topher, It’s been an absolute pleasure, thank you so much for sharing with us and taking the time to walk us through some of those poignant stories on HeroPress, that’s fantastic. Thank you very much for your time.
Topher: You’re very welcome.
Liam: We’ll see you soon.
Tara: If you like what we’re doing here – meeting new people in our WordPress community – we invite you to tell others about it. We’re on iTunes and at hallwaychats.com.
Liam: Better yet, ask your WordPress friends and colleagues to join us on the show. Encourage them to complete the “Be on the show” form on our site, to tell us about themselves.