Introducing Matt Whiteley
Matt is the creator and owner of Whiteley Designs, a one-man WordPress development hosting and maintenance agency specializing in the Genesis Framework. He’s married, with a three-year-old daughter and another child on the way in May 2018.
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: Today’s show is brought to you in part by Liquid Web.
Liam: We sure know that there’s a lot of choices when it comes to hosting your WordPress site. Liquid Web is the manage WordPress partner you’ve been waiting for. Whether you’re a business owner, an agency, or a freelancer, Liquid Web has you covered when it comes to performance, uptime, and ease of site management.
Tara: And one of the things we love most, when your content goes viral, Liquid Web doesn’t charge you more for huge spikes in traffic. Transparent pricing, no surcharges.
Liam: Liquid Web is offering Hallway Chats listeners 33% off for the first three months. Go to Liquidweb.com and use the coupon code, HALLWAYCHATS, all one word, to sign up.
Tara: And now the conversation begins. This is episode 32.
Liam: Welcome to Hallway Chats. I’m Liam Dempsey.
Tara: And I’m Tara Claeys. Today, we have with us Matt Whiteley. Matt is the creator and owner of Whiteley Designs, a one-man WordPress development hosting and maintenance agency specializing in the Genesis Framework. He’s married, with a three-year-old daughter and another on the way in May. Welcome, Matt.
Matt: Hey, guys.
Liam: Hey, Matt. How are you? Thanks for joining us today.
Matt: Doing alright, thanks for having me on.
Liam: Excellent. Well, we’re glad to have you here. Tell us a little bit more about yourself beyond what Tara just shared?
Matt: Like Tara said, I am the creator and founder of Whiteley Designs. I do WordPress hosting, WordPress development, maintenance plans. As she mentioned, I am the father of a soon to be three-year-old and, by the time this airs, I may have a little boy joining the family in May, so that’s exciting. I’ve been married for about eight years, been working with WordPress for about ten years. Yeah, it keeps me busy and there’s always something to do, whether it’s family-related, or WordPress-related, or work-related.
Liam: Yeah, that’s quite the intro. You got it all going on there. Tell us a little bit about how you got into working for yourself and whether or not that led you to WordPress or vice versa?
Matt: It was roughly 10 years ago, it’s kind of an interesting story. It was back when Groupon was really popular and I was on the job hunt at that time, and Groupon was huge, commercials everywhere. And I thought, “This is something we can do locally. Just offer the businesses a little better revenue share if they want to work with somebody local.” Problem was I had no idea how to build a website and that is a big part of Groupon. So I did some googling and I came across something called Groupbuy site which, unbeknownst to me, was a WordPress plugin theme combination that created the functionality that worked just like Groupon. Before buying that, I taught myself how to build a little landing page and it was just a one-page HTML– it was bad but it collected email addresses and I built up an email list and we’re talking just a box in the middle of the page with an email address field. Emails came to me, I kept them in a spreadsheet, and if I needed to email them, I copied and pasted them from the spreadsheet into the email. This is before MailChimp and Constant Contact. It was a terrible process but I got about 500 people sign up for it through family and friends, and couponing groups, yard sale groups, and stuff like that locally. Eventually, I launched a site. I knew a couple local business owners that ran some deals with me. Over the next three years or so, I built that up to working with 40 or 50 different businesses that were either running coupons or running deals. And in that time, I was very active on these support forums, getting help with stuff, adding custom functionality to the site. And I got to know the owner and the developer of the company. His name was Dan Cameron, he owns Sprout Apps now, which I don’t know if you’re familiar with them. But he gave me a lot of guidance and helped me learn all of the hooks, and filters, and functions, and WordPress. That’s kind of where it all started. Then how it kind of developed into a business was through those same support forums, I met a lot of people who saw what I was doing and said, “Hey, I’d like that feature on my site.” And I started doing small custom projects here and there. And I remember doing my first month where I made like $500 and I was like, “This is amazing, 500 bucks. That’s six grand in a year, that’s great.” That’s kind of how I started out and then I started to learn more and got a little better in them. One of the gentlemen I still work today, who had a client who is using the same software as me, I’ve been doing work for him and he said, “Hey, I have a website. I need done, do you build websites,” and like any good developer I said, “Absolutely, I build websites.” He had worked with Brian Gardner from Studio Press years and years ago and said, “Did you ever hear of Genesis?” I said, “No.” He said, “Well, let’s give it a shot.” I used Genesis to build that site and that kind of led me to Genesis and it’s kind of built up from there, it’s what I’m familiar with, I know it really well. And it’s just kind of grown now to where I’m working with. I have seven or eight different agencies, Los Angeles, Nashville, Michigan, New York, a couple overseas that I kind of act as their development wing where they have in-house designers and they go out and find the clients and send them my way. It’s worked out really, really well for me and I really enjoy doing it. That’s kind of where it started and how it’s built up now, it’s been an interesting ride but it’s been all organic. I really don’t do any marketing or advertising for myself or anything like that.
Tara: If you don’t do any marketing or advertising, how have you found these agencies across the country? Are you on the Studio Press recommended developer list? Where does that come from?
Matt: One of my goals is to eventually make that list but I am not on it now. Essentially, it was all word of mouth. There’s probably three or four different agency owners or designers that I’ve met through the Groupbuy site forum that I still work with. And they have kind of provided me a lot of business over the years. Then it’s a client of a friend of a client and it’s all kind of been organic and word of mouth, it’s kind of grown out. I mean, I’ve done a couple local things for friends and family who have then made suggestions over time but yeah, it’s been organic for the most part.
Tara: That’s great. I’m glad to hear that you’ve grown it organically. [laughs] Speaking of organic and growing, your family is growing.
Matt: It is.
Tara: That’s an exciting time. No one else can see this but I can see that you work from home, so how does that work, having a toddler and a new baby and working from home? How do you manage that balance?
Matt: It’s interesting. She goes to daycare three days a week and I actually do work in an office throughout the week as well. I’m never actually at home working when my little one is here. My wife’s home Mondays and Fridays with her, she’s in daycare Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday. It works out pretty well and we’ll probably have the same setup once the little guy come. He’ll be home for a couple of months with mom and I’ll be here with him but it will probably be the same setup. I don’t think I can keep my sanity with getting work done and having her wanting to sit here. Because she wants to sit at this desk that you guys can see and type on the keyboard which I have to turn off, She loves to be at work at her office too.
Tara: That’s nice that you have that flexibility to work from home sometimes.
Liam: Yeah, working from home is a wonderful blessing if you can wrangle out the details on how to actually work from home. Well done for figuring that out, well done for that. Matt, you’ve shared a lot with us and there’s so much to unpack there. I feel like we can talk for weeks and still not get through it all. What I want to ask you a little bit about is, as you went from kind of googling things and just figuring things out, one-page website, collecting email addresses, to building Genesis sites, to being the developer for a number of different agencies across the US. How did that come together from a learning perspective and maybe you can touch on the first time, I’ll say in quotes here, ‘a real agency’ said, “Hey, can you be our developer?” How did that come together in terms of can I do it, can I not do it kind of thing, and they’re going to have real clients and the like?
Matt: Honestly, a lot of it you don’t even feel like– especially not being trained. I have a marketing degree from Pen State so I’m not trained whatsoever with coding or anything like that. So even to this day, I know I build quality things and I’m really focused on quality code but you never necessarily feel like it’s good enough. I’m always looking to improve. It honestly has been trial and error. And I’ll go back and look at code I’ve written a month ago, a year ago, and I can completely refactor it and do it better now. A lot of it is just learning on the go, sites like Stack Overflow, and there’s developer forums out there. Tonya Mork’s Know The Code is really good. I play and I’m joining that and just improving things because there’s always ways to get better. And even like I mentioned, Dan from Sprout Apps, I used to send him stuff and he would say, “You know, this is good but you should do it this way and send me code examples back.” There’s some mentorship in there, there’s a lot of, like you said, googling. There’s so many resources out there, which you also have to be careful about where you’re getting the information from that you could read a tutorial from ten different people and see ten different ways to do it, and eight of them can be awfully ineffective and not efficient. It’s a lot of work on my own and just kind of figuring out things. I’m sure I certainly don’t do things the ideal way all the time but it’s always a learning process, it’s going to continue.
Liam: Yeah, I get that. The learning process and being mindful of the dangers of copy and paste. We can start there but that can be a real problem too.
Matt: And I will say, working with Studio Press, the documentation there is extremely good and there’s a big, big community around Studio Press and the Genesis Framework being on the forums there, the Facebook group, and just the documentation itself. Brian Gardner has code snippets galore on his website that you can reference and see how things are done the right way. I think starting with that framework and knowing it was well-written and documented well was a really good base to start with.
Liam: Yeah, there’s a lot of people who would agree with you on that. Since you’ve touched on the Genesis community, maybe you can share a little bit more about how you first started getting into that community and what your engagement with the wider WordPress community is as well?
Matt: Yeah. Honestly, I’m kind of a one-off. I interact with a select few within the community. I was active on the Studio Press forums for a while but it is time-consuming to stay active on all the different outlets out there. I provided a lot of help for different people and I met a couple of clients on the forums. Like I said, I’d love to be on that developers list at some point, maybe that’s something that will be down the road. And the WordPress community as a whole, honestly, I’m not all that active. With everything else going on, I’m a part of a couple different groups, Carrie Dil’s Fearless Freelancer, I’m on there. Like I said, the Genesis Studio Press Facebook group, the forums there. I haven’t been able to go to any WordCamps just because they haven’t worked out. I know there is one in Lancaster in February, which is my area, I’m down in southeastern Pensylvania, which I believe Tara is speaking at, so I may be there.
Liam: Plug, plug, plug.
Matt: Yeah. [laughs] All in all, I’m not the most active but I do what I can.
Liam: Yeah, getting back to that, working from home and the flexibility there, or involvement with the WordPress community, with any community really, is all about balance. Sounds like you’ve found ways to engage with it in a way that works best for you and for your family, so that’s great to hear. You shared with us, Matt, the professional success you’ve established by growing your own business and growing your practice to the point where you’re doing all this different work and you have agencies and you really had to shell out marketing effort or resources, and it sounds like your family life is successful as well. And I wonder if you could share with us your definition of personal and professional success.
Matt: Yeah. I’ve heard you guys ask this question, it’s the one I thought about a lot. I think from a macro perspective I am successful in the fact that I’m able to do something I really enjoy doing, I get to do it with people I enjoy doing it with, whether that be clients or the designers or other creative teams that I work with. And it does provide me a stable income that I can support my family comfortably and not have to worry about the next build that’s coming out or anything like that. I think from a macro overall, I do feel successful. From a business perspective, while I feel relatively successful, I don’t think it’s anything that I’ll ever feel 100% successful just because there’s always room to grow, there’s always a client you could have serviced better, there’s always money left on the table, there’s always learning what you can do. It’s going to be something that you’re going to have to keep working on and keep pushing forward with. While I do feel successful to a point, I think just my personality and wanting to always improve and do things better, won’t necessarily let me feel that from a business perspective. It’s possible but I think there’s always going to be room to grow from some angle.
Tara: Yeah, I can relate to that. I think that’s a combination of these phrases that we hear probably too often. I’ll say them anyway, but the imposter syndrome combined with fear of missing out, right? You feel like there’s always somebody who’s doing more or doing it better than you are. It’s a challenge to not let that cloud your judgment of yourself or your view of your own success. I think having a personal view of success and doing something that you love and doing it with people that you enjoy and that you respect really brings you down to Earth a little bit because it is easy to get your head wrapped in that. Moving on Matt, can you tell us a little bit about your favorite thing. What is your favorite thing to do every day whether in your personal or your work life. What do you like to do?
Matt: Overall, my favorite thing is probably the development side of things. My favorite projects are certainly the ones that come that are designed well, I just get the, whether it’s a Photoshop, or a sketch, or Adobe file, and I can just build the site. When I have a couple of hours and I have a site that’s been speced out properly and I can just focus on coding, that’s definitely my favorite thing to do. Those are not as frequent as the ones that are like, “I need a website. Here are some examples. Just go with it.” Those are a little tougher to work on, but ones that are really speced out well and I just have a design and I can just sit down and turn everything else off the focus on that, that’s definitely my favorite thing to do.
Matt: Primarily, it’s PHP, CSS, HTML but I do a lot of jQuery mixed in there. My sites are typically– I have a base starter theme with Genesis and then I use advanced custom fields for a lot of the builds and I’ve gotten really good with customizing that to make it super easy for the client on the back-end to manage every aspect of the site without having to worry about diving into code.
Liam: Yeah, I think that’s one of the best things about the ACF Plugin is the ability to make the client experience on the WordPress dashboard that much more enjoyable and direct. If we’re going to edit something on the front-end of the page, yeah, we have to go the back-end but we can go to that page rather than it being in a setting or somewhere else that’s perhaps more obscure.
Matt: Yeah, and all the clients I’ve worked with have been thrilled with how easy it is after, instead of looking at the WYSIWYG Editor and seeing a bunch of markup in there, they can just enter some text into fields and it’s automatically formatted for them in the front-end. It works out really well, it’s been really good.
Liam: Yeah, that’s a beautiful thing. Let me ask you this, as you walked yourself over the years from that first web page to using the Advanced Custom Fields to make more technically advanced, more complicated sites, and as you’ve grown this freelance business on the side as well as the challenges of full-time employment and family, what’s been your biggest challenge to date and how have you overcome it or how are you continuing to address it?
Matt: Honestly, my biggest challenge is kind of something we talked about already, it’s putting together a plan to make that dive to do Whiteley designs full time. Like I said, there’s a lot of pieces that have to come into place first and it’s relatively close but knowing when the right time to make that move is, I think, is the hardest part for me. And just from a micro-perspective, dealing with email is one of my most-challenging things because whether it’s at work. or my personal. or the Whiteley Design, or four or five other companies I do work with that I kind of handle email for them, it’s a bear to keep it all up to date. And I’m one of those people, I do not like seeing red dots on my iPhone that says, “Message is unread!” I can’t deal with that so they have to be read and replied to. Managing that is definitely one of the challenges.
Tara: I could lead you down a path of excitement and productivity with your inbox, it’s one of my favorite things to problem-solve.
Liam: You can also just turn off notifications.
Tara: [laughs] That is what I was going to say, that is the key. That is definitely a key.
Matt: It’s interesting, I see some people that do only open email a couple of times a day and I ponder if I could do that or not, or if I only opened it at 10:00 and 02:00, if at three o’clock I’m there like, “I wonder what came to my inbox.” I can’t stand that waiting. I don’t know if I can do that one or not but it may bring sanity back a little bit.
Tara: It’s a productivity killer but it’s very satisfying to kind of see what’s new and what problem you can solve, you can leave whatever it is you’re working on that you don’t want to work on to go solve a problem right away.
Tara: I’m guilty of that but it’s not good for you. Boomerang, do you use that?
Matt: I do not. I’m unaware of what Boomerang is.
Tara: Look it up.
Liam: It’s more than just an Australian hunting tool. It’s an email plugin and it works for both Outlook and Gmail, and it has a variety of functionality. But one of the things that I think Tara was referencing is you can get an email that say, comes in now, and you can using Boomerang say, “Come back to my email inbox in four hours.” Or whatever.
Matt: Oh, just like a inbox triggered by snooze?
Liam: Yeah. And you can setup kind of an auto-responder that says you’re not dealing with your inbox. It’s a little bit more involved than that but it basically sends a reply to your clients saying, “Hey, I’m just working. If it’s really important, call me at this number but otherwise, I’ll be back.” Without having to turn on out of office all the time.
Matt: Got you.
Tara: Yeah. Or you can set it to come back to your inbox if you don’t get a response. So if you send a client a proposal and they don’t get back to you, instead of forgetting that they didn’t come back to you, you can have them email you. Yeah, it’s cool. Okay, productivity tip of the day.
Liam: Thank you miss Tara.
Tara: You’re welcome. We know that you don’t like email and that’s a challenge. Would you say that there are other aspects of your work life that you enjoy less than others? You do marketing, how do you feel about marketing your own business? That must be part of your trajectory in this plan to launch and become your own self.
Matt: I guess when I said I haven’t done any marketing, that’s from kind of strictly a print perspective because, obviously, doing things like this and networking on the groups I network on and things like that is certainly a form of marketing. But I would say, from a perspective of things that I don’t like to do as much as others, I’m kind of 50/50 on the design side of things because I am pretty good with Photoshop and Illustrator and I do mockups for websites and stuff. That depends on the day, sometimes I’m really into it and I want to work on a design, and others day I’m like, “Oh, I wish I could just be coding a website now. I don’t really feel like building this Illustrator file.” It can depend on the day what mood I’m in, I guess.
Liam: How do you address the mood when the InDesign file is fighting you and the deadline is not going away and you’ve got a family vacation coming up for a long weekend? It’s all stacked against you, what’s your process of getting your head and mind in the right place to get the job done?
Matt: Typically, I’ll walk away from it and work on another project for a little while and come back. I know with a lot of the media companies I work with from the marketing side of things, they always tell me I’m almost always the first one to submit my ads to them. So I’m typically extremely far ahead with regards to submitting ads and stuff like that. Deadlines typically aren’t a problem just because I have everything mapped out so far ahead, we have the year– pretty much all of our media buys and ads play out for the entire year so I’ve been used to playing that. But typically I have enough time that I can just step to another project, work on that for a while and then come back if I need to.
Liam: Yeah, that’s a good approach. I like that, I tend to take an approach of promising myself something that I will get to get it done. It’s usually take a quick break to grab coffee or tea and then come back and promise myself. Typically, it’s a run, I’ll go up for a run, I’ll blow off whatever else I was supposed to do that day and go for a run. Tara, what do you do?
Tara: I started to walk away. I usually try to plow through it though, it’s been my standard. But the more I read about it, the more I learn walking away is a good idea. I have a Pomodoro thing set and I just notoriously turn it off as soon as it starts because I just don’t want to stop. I find it hard to stop sometimes. Tell us something not work-related about you. What do you do besides work?
Matt: I am a big golfer. I had one of my best golfing seasons that I’ve ever had last year. That’s a big part of things, and that is a difficult one to do because that is not something you can do quickly.
Tara: It takes a lot of time.
Matt: Yes, a half hour drive to the course and then a four and a half hour round and half hour back and you’re losing a half a day already. I don’t want to [inaudible 26:38] or kids this summer. I know when we had my daughter, I played in a golf league in Tuesday nights. And I went the first week and I didn’t go the rest of the summer just because I felt terrible, did work all day and then I go right to golf, and she has the kid all day. It didn’t feel right so I did not golf the rest of the year, and then I golfed the two years after that. I don’t expect to be playing much after the middle of May this year, just so my wife can keep her sanity. But who knows? Maybe the first one will be easier than the first one. We’ll see, we’ll see what happens. But yeah, golf’s a big part. It’s nice to get out here, just quiet, and play and have fun, beating [inaudible 27:17] every time so it’s good.
Tara: That’s great. You must miss it in the winter. If you live in Pensylvania, there’s probably not much golf this time of year?
Matt: No, you can’t get out too much this time of year, but I do know people that play year-round here and they don’t care. As long as there’s no snow on the ground, they’ll be out there but I’m cold when it’s 70 degrees out so I’m not out there when it’s 60 or under.
Liam: Well, I had one of my best years ever last year, too. I golfed once and it was of last time I can remember golfing so it was one of my best scores in recent memory.
Matt: That’s one way to do it, if you golf once a year, you’re going to have your best round every time. [laughs]
Liam: I tend to judge my score on how many golf balls I lose.
Matt: There you go.
Liam: Matt, let me change gears on you one more time here, and ask you if you would share with us what’s the single most valuable piece of advice. It can be either personal or professional, that someone has shared with you and that you’ve incorporated into your life, and that has reaped real rewards in return for you?
Matt: I don’t remember who told me this but it was really simple and it was probably from the job I had at college but– actually, it was my boss at my old job and she just said, “Be kind.” That resonated with a lot of different things, especially interacting with clients because there’s many times where you can easily send a snarky email back and that’s just not going to get you anywhere. Treat everybody that you can with respect, be kind, especially on social media. Going out and blasting people and getting political, it’s not going to get you anywhere and it’s going to look bad, and it’s going to be there forever. Treat others kindly, and it is okay to say no to clients, which is another thing that I have a lot of trouble with. Especially if you can say no in a nice way, “This isn’t a project that fits but I have these other suggestions for you or some advice.” And it goes a long way and it can really create some longstanding relationships with clients that might not have been there if you sent that snarky response because they don’t know what they’re talking about or you expect them to do something. It’s a really simple piece of advice but it can apply to a lot of different areas of life, whether it’s business or personal.
Liam: Yeah, I like that. I think you can never be too nice to people. Niceness doesn’t imply naivety, but just being nice and being diplomatic. And I love the ‘no and’ type of response. “No, that’s not going to work here, that’s not going to be a good fit here, I’m not in the position to help you. And here’s how I can and here are some options for you.” Rather than just, “No.” You give them an opportunity to find a solution even if you don’t have it. So you’re not just turning them out in the street but you’re giving them somewhere else to look. That’s really, really helpful.
Matt: And another benefit to that is, if you can refer some business to other people that fits better, in turn, they’re always in the back of their head, “Hey, that person sent me some business, I might have a client that fits for them down the road.” But if it comes back, it does, if it doesn’t, it’s really not a big deal. But it’s good for all parties.
Tara: Yeah, that’s true. And with your clients too, when you make a good impression on them by being nice and kind, then they’re more likely to refer you for busines as well.
Tara: I always told my children, “If nothing else, be nice!” [laughs]
Liam: I like the joke– is it Nick Cage or Nick Drake? Who is it? Cruel to Be Kind? Nick Lowe. Cruel to Be Kind, you remember that song from the ’80s?
Liam: I would sing it to you folks, but I’m pretty sure that would be the end of our podcast. [laughter] Speaking of the end of our podcast, Matt, we’re running out of time here. Thank you so much for joining us on this show, it’s been a real pleasure.
Matt: It’s been a pleasure, yes.
Liam: Before we say goodbye, I wonder if you’ll share with us where people can find you and can find your business?
Matt: Absolutely. I am on Twitter at @whiteleydesigns, or you can go to Whiteleydesigns.com. All the information’s there, hosting, maintenance, website development, or just stop in to say hi.
Tara: Great. Thanks for joining us, Matt.
Mat: Thanks guys.
Liam: Thanks, Matt. Talk to you soon, bye-bye.
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.