Introducing Joe Howard
Joe Howard is the Head Buff at WP Buffs. Hailing from Washington, D.C., Joe drinks nine cups of tea every day.
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Tara: And now, the conversation begins. This is episode 6.
Liam: Welcome to Hallway Chats. I’m Liam Dempsey.
Tara: I’m Tara Claeys. We’re here today with Joe Howard. Joe is the head buff at WP Buffs. Joe is from Washington, D.C. He tells us that he drinks 9 cups of tea a day.
Liam: Joe? Welcome to the show. Thanks for joining us.
Joe: Howdy guys. Thanks for having me. I’m really excited to be here.
Liam: I bet you are if you are halfway through nine cups of tea!
Joe: Oh yeah! I’m on number four right now. I am drinking out of my NASA mug. So yeah. There’s a lot going on.
Liam: Awesome. Joe? Tell us a little about yourself; who you are and what you do. We know you’re from DC but fill in the gaps for us please.
Joe: Sure Liam. I am indeed from the nation’s capital Washington DC born and raised and now back in the district. Like Tara mentioned, I run a company called WP Buffs. We are the CTO for entrepreneurs and small businesses that run WordPress websites. We provide ongoing security performance review, maintenance, and any ongoing support issues that people need for a monthly subscription. That’s my role in the WordPress space.
Liam: That is awesome. So you said that you provide a CTO role. You work in a lot of a support. You kind of do whatever a client needs to be done within their WordPress builds. Tell me a little bit about (if you can) how you got into WordPress from the start. As your interest and involvement in WordPress grew, how did that eventually become what you doing today with WP Buffs?
Joe: So my origins in WordPress happened a long time ago. When I graduated college, I actually graduated with a major in mathematics and education. So I came back to DC (like I said I was born and raised here). I came back to DC and taught high school math for a couple years. Actually, nothing related to WordPress at all. After I finished two years teaching in DC public schools I decided to transition to something else. I wanted to join startup. I proceeded to work for a few very small marketing agencies. By very small, I mean I was the first employee at these companies. As the high title of Director of Operations I got to do some of everything. With our digital marketing just we chose WordPress as our CMS of choice. It’s a great choice for people who aren’t highly technical and don’t want to be involved with all the technical work or have to do it. It allows us to create customized solutions for people as well at the same time. That’s how I got into it. My background is in digital marketing and WordPress, the happy medium of both of those two.
Liam: Thank you.
Tara: How did you go from being a teacher to marketing and digital communication?
Joe: That’s a very good question. When I decided that I wanted to transition from teaching high school high school…I always enjoyed the challenge of being a teacher…teaching in public schools in an urban environment is definitely difficult. I like embracing a challenge like that. When I was selected to a school where I would be teaching (the school was actually selected for me through my program) I didn’t feel like the staff around the school was in a position to help the students succeed. When I was transitioning away, I knew I wanted to do something else where I could really climb a mountain that had its serious challenges. I wanted something where I could really pick my team a little better. I thought and I still think that regardless of how big a challenge, if you have the right people on the team you can you can move forward and figure it out. I thought start being in a startup is a great place to be. Probably the real reason I got into digital marketing was because it doesn’t take a lot of education to start doing. I’m someone who likes to jump in and start tinkering and figuring things out. Although I wasn’t starting off with big clients at first I started off doing smaller projects (you know the company started doing smaller projects) and digital marketing was a space I could really sink my teeth into right away without having to take 20 weeks of online courses or go get a second degree or anything like that. Digital marketing is changing every day so it really just requires constant education and experimentation. That’s really how I went digital in the first place. It’s been great to me so far.
Liam: That is awesome. As you transitioned from teaching into digital marketing you worked for a few startups. I don’t know if you’d use the term startup to describe WP Buffs…but you’ve transitioned again and you’re running your own business and you’re growing that. Over the course son of your career and in your professional life (let me ask this question and in two parts) how would you define success today for you? What’s your definition of it? How has that changed over your career?
Joe: Well success is hard to measure because are so many ways to measure it and none of them are right or wrong. They’re just really dependent on what you know as an individual when considering success, I would say (for me) before I started WP Buffs I really saw success in a more financial sense. How much money was I making and was my company making money for me and for my staff. As I transitioned into being an employee and also doing some government contract work as well and transitioning from that to really running my own company, I’ve really kind of taken on this entrepreneurial role. In a way, I think success is just a lot about how authentic you are to yourself and how happy you can be doing what you’re doing. There are lot of millionaires out there who are not happy because they are just trying to make another million dollars. Where does that stop? Once you hit a billion are you then successful? No, you need to get another billion. I’ve got to catch up with the other guys. That’s kind of an empty journey. I think I figured that out over the last few years. Although a financial situation is important, it’s not my primary form of happiness. I’m happy running my own business. I’m happy helping people with their WordPress sites. I’m happy that I get to work in the WordPress community every day. How lucky can I be? The WordPress community is amazing. Liam, Tara, and everyone else that is so friendly; that’s worth more a few extra bucks in my pocket.
Liam: Wow! I couldn’t agree with you more on so many different levels. Tara? Go ahead.
Tara: How did you find the WordPress community?
Joe: Like I mentioned, I am in Washington DC. Over time, I started getting more and more involved in the WordPress DC Meetup. I think that was my first introduction to the community. So Tara, I met you there probably two or three years ago at this point. I heard other people give talks and then I started giving talks at the WordPress DC Meetup. I’ve joined you in Arlington Meetup. I’m giving a talk next week at the Baltimore Meetup. I think the Meetups kind of started my introduction. Then a couple of years ago, I found these things called WordCamps. I was like, what are these? People get together and it’s like another level of a WordPress Meetup. How did I not find these things before? You know when you buy a piece of software…Meetups were exactly what I need. I saw these WordCamps. I was like boom! This is perfect. So since then I’ve been hitting up a lot of WordCamps. I’ve been at Lancaster, Pennsylvania. I’ve been to Miami. I’ve been to Baltimore and WordCamp US for a couple years. They’ve been great. I’ve actually hired people who I met from the WordPress Lancaster Meetup. The community really is vibrant. That’s how I kind of got started in things. I’ve started speaking at more WordCamps and giving back to the community. Hopefully, I will continue that upward trajectory in the WordPress community.
Liam: That is awesome! Now that you are running your own business you have lots of fun things to do. Tell me about your workday. What is your favorite thing to do and get you out of bed?
Joe: Well what gets me out of bed may not be my favorite thing to do. What gets me out of bed is answering customer requests (not just customer requests) but making sure that our customers are happy. When I wake up, the first thing I do is check my email to make sure that there’s nothing that’s gone terribly wrong in the middle of the night. I built WP Buffs as a remote team. The fact that we handle WordPress security for so many people, we have to have someone available 24 x7. So things are getting handled 24 hours a day. My highest priority at this point is making sure customers are happy and that were providing really good service for people. The first thing I do is make sure customers are happy and that nothing has gone wrong and that the ship is headed in the right direction. My favorite part of my day is probably just working with my team. As anyone who’s started a small business start up knows at first you’re doing everything. You’re managing the accounting, you’re handling all the customer requests, you’re growing the team and you have a hand in every pot. As time has gone on, I’ve taken on more of the role of a people manager with my technical team. I’ve got six developers who do an assortment of tasks now. I’m managing that team. We have some happiness the engineers and more support staff. I’m not sure if that phrase is trademarked by WordPress. Don’t sue me WordPress, I’m sorry. We have people manning the helpdesk. We have US based people and non-US based people. I’ve taken automatic approach on things. Yeah, that is probably the favorite part of my day. It is really having so many moving pieces happening at one time and really kind of being the quarterback behind that and making sure that my people have the resources that they need. The team is great. Everyone who I have hired (I think I’ve gotten pretty lucky in hiring so far), everyone’s turned out really well. At least for the most part hiring has turned out pretty well. I get to manage people all day. They really do the magic. I’m just kind of a puppet master in the background making sure things don’t go horribly awry. They do an awesome job. So really, it’s about the team.
Tara: So it sounds like you are the main customer service point of contact with your customers at the moment? So when you say you go with that when you wake up and you have 24 hour services, that is challenge for you? How scalable is that?
Joe: I mentioned a few minutes ago that we just hired Becky Weaver out of WordCamp Lancaster. She is fully managing the helpdesk at this point. She’s done an absolute fantastic job with almost no mistakes. She is answering emails left and right. She has taken our culture and the tone that we want in emails. We want to be efficient with people and get them changes fast but we also want to make them smile. It’s a customer service business and we want people to have fun while they’re working with us. That’s really important as well. She’s taking all that in stride. At this point, I am just making sure that there are no websites down and that I don’t have an email from someone. Although I’m not in the day-to-day execution of things all the time anymore, I am the head guy. I’ve got to make sure that things will work out well. A lot of times in our ticketing system someone will assign me a task or they’ll tag me in something and say hey! We want to make sure that this is done right according to the systems we have in place. Sometimes we get things that are outside the scope of systems or are fringe things that happen. We don’t have a system for that. So I will help create something for that. That’s what I mean by making sure that all the trains are running on time.
Tara: A follow up on that…so it sounds like you have a lot of websites that you didn’t build or that you’re not hosting. I know issues happen on websites. They go down because of server issues, plugins, or things like that. Do you have permissions to interact with hosts on behalf of your clients? What kind of guarantees can you provide if they are on bad hosting? How do you handle that?
Joe: That is a very good question and probably a little more complicated than I have the time to totally answer. We offer hosting. We partner with a few different hosts. Who you host with is going to depend entirely on your website. You have certain applications and functions for your website. If you have a certain amount of traffic, that’s going to dictate where you want to host a website and what kind of environment is necessary for you. If you have a small personal blog that gets a hundred visits a month, you’re probably fine on shared hosting. If you have a website (we have one customer with us who gets 6 million page views a year) which is significant. You want to host a high-powered, vps dedicated server for something like that. So we partner with a few different hosts. We suggest that people host with us. It allows us to have full control over their environment .
Tara: Yeah, that makes sense.
Joe: As you guys know, I’m sure you’ve gotten clients before who are on a GoDaddy shared server and they just don’t want to know upgrade to the third level. They’re hitting their execution limits and they’re mad at you. They don’t know why their site is not working. It requires more investment in the hosting infrastructure. We urge people to host with us because we have full control over everything that’s required for a managed WordPress hosting provider. Also, part of our job is education. Hosting is a big part of WordPress and a lot of people don’t understand it well enough to either do it themselves or just to manage it themselves. If you’re on a shared server you have a lot to do. You have to make sure the PHP version is up to date. You have to make sure you’re caching is correct. Are you caching to your server or are you doing caching through a plugin? These are things you have to think about. A lot of people need some guidance there. We have people that host with us but we will let them where they feel comfortable. We will try to guide them in the right direction.
Liam: That’s cool, Joe. I’m going to change gears on you a little bit here.
Joe: Go for it.
Laim: You told us earlier in the conversation that for you now success is around authenticity and being true to who you are. I imagine you’re rolling that kind of ethos and thought process across your team. Within that, to achieve success (particularly with the new company) what is the single most important thing you do on any given day on a daily basis? What is the single most important thing you do?
Joe: When I was starting in digital marketing and starting in WordPress I really had this idea that I had to be this buttoned up company. I didn’t put humor into what I was doing because I had to be serious. I had serious clients and that was my role. As I have moved into building my own company, I really decided that if I’m not going to build a company or work in a place that’s not authentic to me and what I want to do, then was is the point? I’m not going to be happy doing work that I want to do. If you go to WPBuffs.com it’s not super serious. It’s somewhat informal. It caters to the crowd of entrepreneurs and small business owners who know that the security and performance of their site is important. They want to work with someone who exudes a little bit of personality as well. To answer your question, I guess the most important thing I do on a day-to-day basis is really make sure that (the term company culture gets thrown around a lot) I’ll try not to use it that sense. The way we do things is really important. It’s not just the final product, you know? Did we get your header color change to the right color? Does your website work across all devices? Yes. Those things are important but we have to do it our way. I think the most important part is the managing of people and making sure that we’re at a place where our customers are happy, our employees are happy and like working with us, and continuing to provide a service that’s good for everyone. I think a lot of a lot of companies …while their primary goal is on the customer…which it should be… I think a lot of companies make the mistake where they have to break their necks and do everything possible without regard to themselves. I think that’s a little dangerous. You have to prioritize a customer but you’ve go to do it your way. You have to do it in a way (like you said) that’s scalable. If you try and kill yourself for these clients, you’re going to get a year and in and you’re going to be totally tired of it all and want to toss it all out the window. We’re doing things our way. It’s actually been really helpful for us because we get clients who understand that. They have been to the website. They know our tone. They know how we work. So when they sign up they have the expectation already that these guys are cool. They are going to do great work but they are going to do it their way and that’s fine. I think in that way we’ve grown in a way that is scalable as well. We have a lot of customers who really appreciate what we do. They like to email us back and forth. They just don’t email when we say thank you and respond with a gift of Leonardo Dicaprio with a cheers thing. They gift back. That makes the workday more fun. That’s important to me and it’s important for the team as well.
Tara: I admire what you have built. I’ve seen your emails and they are super fun. They do inspire happiness. I think that’s great what you have built. I think you have given a lot of thought to that. What you say with all that you’ve done and learned, what’s been your biggest challenge either in your personal life or your business life or blending to two together? If you have overcome it, how have you done that? What are you doing to overcome that challenge?
Joe: Yes. I’m definitely still trying to overcome that challenge. Still a small company still a lot of growth to do. Still a lot of big dreams have yet to be met. But working there. There a lot of challenges. Every day comes with challenges, so to quantify one or two as the biggest one or two is difficult. But in terms of matching my personal life to professional it’s been a challenge to build a company from scratch and do it kind of while also building a network of people in the WordPress community, friends. Trying to wear every hat is exhausting, as a lot of people WordPress space know. Whether you at work in a design agency or you’re a freelancer, wearing a lot of hats is almost part of being in the WordPress space. Trying to grow up company from the ground up that that is profitable and that is sustainable it is really difficult, there are so many moving pieces. Trying to balance making sure that my staff gets paid every month with what’s my goodie bag to take home every month – I don’t have the set salary at this point. I will try to pay a mortgage and pay bills with leftovers after the customer’s work gets done, to know the employees are paid. Someone will probably tell me it’s not the best way to do it but it’s the stage of startup we’re at right now. That being said, financially we’re doing better than I expected at this point, which is good news. But the like I said: still a long way to go. The challenge of being a financially stable company is always a challenge. Even within just finances, there are a thousand things you can do affect your financial situation. Which 3 to 5 do I have time to focus on? That’s what really is the key. That’s definitely a challenge for sure.
Liam: Great answer. We’re going to swing around to the question that we like to ask our guests: What is the single most valuable – oh, we’re starting cup five, folks! He started pouring cup five! What is what is the single most valuable piece of advice, whether it’s personal, professional or otherwise, that you have received and implemented in your life?
Joe: My, I was going to say “wife,” but future wife, has always been so supportive of what I want to do. I’ve worked in a bunch of different industries. I’ve been a high school math teacher, I’ve worked at digital marketing startups, I have done government consulting work, and I’m now running my own business. I’ve tried a lot of different things. Since I met the future Mrs., she’s been so supportive of everything I want to do and when it came to transitioning from doing government consulting, which is a pretty financially comfortable position, to running my own company where I don’t know what my salary is going to be – she did not skip a beat, she did not hesitate because she knows the importance of living in a way that makes you happy, to put it quite simply. I think that the government contract work was just not something that really vibed with me and now I get to run a company every day that that totally vibes with me and it resonates with me, it resonates with my customers, and it brings me happiness and my staff happiness and that is worth however many millions of dollars you want to make doing something – if it doesn’t vibe with you then it’s not worth it. So the advice I’ve received that’s been the most valuable has probably been: Do things that allow you to learn about yourself; a lot of self-reflection, self-awareness. If you can prove that and build a company around that then you will be free from work, quote unquote. Now I feel like I left work when I left government consulting – I haven’t I worked since then. Somehow my company still makes money and it’s the best of both worlds and on that note … there are 7 billion people on this planet. It doesn’t matter how you do things as long … there is a niche for everything. If you want to be hard-nosed and serious some people like that. If you want to have more fun and send gifts to customers like we do – I am not saying everyone has to do that – but if you do want to do that you shouldn’t hesitate to because there is a customer base out there that will want you to do that, especially in the WordPress space. I think people focus a lot on – they want to do research on an industry to find a business it’s really going to work in that space, and it’s great but you really have to factor I, “Is this going to make me happy? Is this going to be a business I want to run in five years?” I have a ton of ideas about different businesses I want to start and I’m trying not have shiny objects syndrome and really focus on WP Buffs for now, but it’s important to really tell yourself, ask yourself … will I want to do this in 5 years? Because 95% of ideas – well 80% of ideas – are probably horrible ideas. 20% are good and then probably 2% or 3% of those ideas are to be ones not only that are good ideas but that you really going to want to be pursuing in the long-term and that’s important. No one starts a business and then you have billion dollar valuation one year later. Businesses take time and I’ve definitely learned along the way that this is no a flash in the pan. If I want to build a business it can take years. It’s not going to take off next month and Boom! Snap your fingers, good to go.
Liam: I love how the advice the you were given by your bride to be … that you are following her advice. That’s really cool. It speaks well for your future marriage, which is awesome. She sounds like an incredibly intelligent woman.
Joe: She is!
Liam: The idea of being authentic and following your dream, not in a silly kind of way but in a practical well-thought-out planned way it is absolutely awesome. And I think with that we’re going to wrap this conversation up with that, because that’s a great note to end on. But before we do Joe, just share with us wherever people can find you online, websites and social media.
<Joe: Definitely. You can find the Buffs at on twitter @WPBuffs. You can find me on twitter. I tweet sometimes, if you want to check me out personally that’s cool too. I am @JosephHHoward on twitter, so 3 H’s in the middle. You can find us also on Facebook, we’re on Linkedin – whatever your social media medium, we are probably on there. If you want to check us out at wpbuffs.com. You can check us out there we are actually right in the middle of a building our new website, so hoping to launch that in the next few weeks. If you’re listening to this, check out the website and stay tuned because it got some brand new stuff coming to you.
Tara: Oh, I’m going to check out the before and after!
Laim: Joe, thanks that it’s been a real pleasure having you on.
Joe: Thanks, Liam. Thanks,Tara.
Tara: Thank you so much. It’s been great talking to you and I will see you around DC.
Joe: It’s been a pleasure.
Liam: Thanks for the listening to the show. We sure hope you enjoyed it much as we did.
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