Introducing Amy Masson
Amy Masson is a former teacher turned WordPress nerd. She owns a company, Sumy Designs, with her sister, Susan. As a kid, Amy was a member of a competitive jump rope team.
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And now the conversation begins. This is episode 9.
Liam: Hi! This is Liam Dempsey. Welcome to Hallway Chats.
Tara: Hi! I’m Tara Claeys. We are excited to have with us Amy Masson of Sumy Designs. Amy’s a former teacher turned WordPress nerd. She loves Harry Potter, wine, and tacos.
Liam: Amy? How are you? Thanks for joining us today.
Amy: I’m great! Thanks for having me.
Liam: Excellent! So we know you’re Amy Masson. We know you like tacos and Harry Potter. I do too. We know you have a company called Sumi Designs but tell us a little bit more. Tell us about yourself, a little bit about life, about your company, and what you do.
Amy: We have been making websites now for over 11 years. We started in 2006. It kind of fell into our lap. I own it with my sister. One day I was getting my hair cut, and my hairstylist asked me if I would make her a website. I said ok. That’s really where it all started.
Liam: Did your hairstylist know at that point in time that you make websites or was that just a question out of the blue?
Amy: Well I was the computer technology teacher. I maintained the school website she knew that I did know how to do it even though I wasn’t teaching anymore. It was something that came up, and I said that I’d be happy to.
Liam: That is awesome! So you own the company with your sister. I have to ask is it your older sister, your younger sister, or your twin sister? What is it?
Amy: As I like to say, it’s my much older sister.
All: (laugh) ok.
Amy: We have a fun sibling rivalry. She is the graphic design portion, and I am the and website builder portion.
Liam: That’s awesome. That’s a nice fit.
Tara: I noticed that you called yourself the website builder portion. Most partnerships are a designer and a developer. Did you intentionally not use that word?
Amy: I did. I don’t think of myself as a developer, but people are mean. I don’t want to get into that debate with anybody. I do what I do. I make websites, and my clients are happy. So I’m not going to put a label on it. I am a WordPress nerd.
Tara: I like that.
Liam: I really like that. You make your own definition. I like that. You call yourself a WordPress nerd. Tell us a little bit about how you got into WordPress and how you use it now, day-to-day. You call yourself the website builder. What does that entail for you? What are your tools and how do you go about getting websites built?
Amy: We started in WordPress early. Our first site was in 2006. We started that because my husband had a blog. Then I had a blog where I wrote about my family. We used WordPress for that. Then I was doing one of my first websites for clients, which was for the local Democrat party in my tiny town. They wanted to have a blog, so I made it with WordPress. It was slow going to go to all WordPress but I was periodically doing WordPress then. As WordPress got bigger and I got better at it, I eventually switched to doing only WordPress.
Liam: That is very cool. I like that. Let’s talk a little bit about (if you wouldn’t mind) how you and your sister work together from a design versus development from a client’s interaction standpoint. Do you both jump in and chat with clients directly right from the start? Do you lead? Does she lead? Does it depend on the client? How does that all come together for you in a way that is productive and efficient (and fun)?
Amy: Well it starts with me. I’m the one that writes the proposals. I talk to the client initially and get everybody on board. I do all the onboarding. At that time, they get a questionnaire with information about their site and that goes to my sister Susan. She has all the information that I had previously talked to the client about. She usually follows up with her own questions about the site. Then she really takes over the whole design process. They do a back and forth. A lot of times she’ll send me things asking how does this look? What do you think of this? Can you make this happen (if it’s something we haven’t done before)? One of her favorite pastimes is making things that I’ve never done and making me figure out how to do it. At that point, once it’s done and the client has approved the design, she sends it all to me, and I start building it.
Liam: I like that she checks with you before she sends it to the client.
Tara: That’s smart. You can’t overpromise that way. How did you guys figure out how to do this? When you decided to start working together, and you’ve been doing this a long time (it was back in 2006 when you started) so you could get the processes. Did you have a mentor for some kind of networking group?
Amy: No. I had been a teacher, and I knew how to make websites. I knew HTML and CSS. She worked as a graphic designer with a big book distributor. So she had started doing a Blogger blog with a bunch of running people. They all had their own little running blogs. She was mastheads for the blogs, but she didn’t know how to put them in the blogs. She would ask me to put them in for everybody. So we kind of both had been doing this a little bit. Then when I got asked to do this website (I’m not a designer I can’t visualize anything) she kind of took over that role of I am going to make it. You’re going to build it. It was all very part time and very hobby like. It definitely was not a full-time business in 2006.
Tara: So the client portion in terms of the questionnaire was that just kind of learn as you go? I guess the word now I hear in terms of website development is agile development where you iterate your process as you go through it. Is that how you describe the evolution of your process? Did you take a class? How did you know how to do all of that?
Amy: It’s learning as we go. I’ve researched online and see what other people are asking. I find the questions that are relevant to us. We aren’t building the same kind of website that everybody is building. I’m not taking on the giant $30,000 project. That’s not what we want to do. We want to work with small businesses. We’ve developed these questions that are relevant to the kind of businesses we work with that get us the answers that we need to be able to develop the website that’s going meet their needs and the needs of their customers.
Liam: So let me ask you this. As you were thinking about Amy going into business with your sister, did you talk about any definition of success and what the business should look like? How (or how not) does your definition of success line up with your sister? How did that all come together?
Amy: Not for a long time, no. Initially, when we started we did all that legal formalities, we incorporated, we had our EIN, and we had a bank account. But it in terms of anything else we just have no idea what we were doing for a really long time. She was still working her full-time gig. I was a stay-at-home mom. This was kind of something that rolled into my lap, and I thought let’s go with it. I didn’t even want it to be a full-time job for a number of years because my children were very small.
Liam: So how would you define success now if you didn’t define it together back then? How would you define it now?
Amy: Well now I define it as if something would happen to my husband I would still be able to do this and support my family. That was something that a long time ago would not have been the case. I probably would’ve had to go back to teaching. Now I’m at a place where I can support my family if something were to happen. I would be able to keep doing this. For me, that’s what success is. My sister was the same way. At some point along the way, she got divorced. We were both worried that she was going to have to go get a “real job” and not be able to do this together as much. We were able to able to turn it around so that we could make a real living from it.
Liam: That’s really neat. That’s really cool. So if sustainability is a big factor and the ability to cover the family bills (which is hugely important for just about everybody who hasn’t won the lottery), how do you and your sister go about getting new clients? What’s your business development process?
Amy: We have a pretty steady stream of inquiries that come in. We rank really well in Google, so we get a lot of inquiries. We have to qualify them and go through them and pick the ones that are good fits. Some months we have more than others. It’s always kind of a roller coaster; up and down but at this point, we’re pretty well placed to attract new people just from Google searches.
Tara: That’s interesting. I think a lot of the smaller agencies like yours and ours rely a lot on our local network. So we know the people that we’re building websites for and have either physical contact them with meetings, or they’re in our communities. We have at least met them. It sounds like a lot of your clients are (because you’re getting them through Google) are not people that you know or have a connection with. How does that work for you in terms of vetting them and building relationship?
Amy: It works great. I do have some local clients. My sister is not local. We’re both working remotely. We never really had a big local following. It’s always been across the country and across the world actually. The time zone thing can get tricky. I have few clients in Hawaii, so I send emails, and the next day I get the response. I can communicate through email, through Skype or through the phone, we can get all the information we need without having to meet in person.
Liam: Yeah that’s awesome. I have a fair amount of that with business in the UK. That time zone is a challenge but once you figure out the formula then you just kind of roll with it. Ok. I’ve got to get this to them by that time. Sometimes it works really well because they’ll send us things at the end of their day. We work on it. By the time they get into the office the next day, it’s all done. They’re like how did you get that done so fast? Well the time zone. That’s pretty neat.
Amy: Most of our clients know that we’re remote and not local them, so the time zone thing is something we work around. They’re usually pretty agreeable to doing a lot of emails to figure out what we need to chat about.
Liam: So that’s interesting. Let me ask you one kind of business logistics question. Because you’re working with clients all over (and even you sometimes said around the world) from a payment standpoint, do you accept credit cards? Is it PayPal? Is it just check and then you walk it into the bank? What works for you folks?
Amy: The vast majority of our clients pay us through credit card. We take credit cards right on our website. There’s a link that goes with every invoice. They just click the link and put in their card. Some people do send us checks, which is nice because there’s not credit card fees. The majority of people just pay online.
Liam: Cool! Thank you! So your sister does the design. You do the building and development. What would be (either historically or currently what you’re working on) what would be your favorite project? What’s something that excites you, geeks you out, where you just absolutely love it and had a great time with it, or something that you’re really enjoying it? Tell us about that.
Amy: My favorite thing is when my sister sends me the completed design and I get to take my WordPress blueprint where I start (my blank page) and make it look exactly like she made it. That is my favorite thing. It’s having that challenge to where you have to make it look just like this. I love spending time there and watching it come to life.
Tara: How does that work with interaction, animation, and that kind of thing? Does she indicate that to you or do you come up with that on your own? How do things work that way?
Amy: It’s a little bit of both. I know a lot of people are going to the design in the browser method. Because my sister’s the graphic designer and I’m not, that model just doesn’t work for us. She does it all in Photoshop, InDesign, or Illustrator (wherever she’s feeling the call that day). She will sometimes note you this ruler is going to be the color or we want a bounce here or can you make this a carousel? I’ll know how carousels are supposed to work but sometimes as I’m working on it, I’ll get an idea about functionality and how something could work better. I’ll just implement it and say you know tell me what you think of this? I can change it if it’s something you’re not happy with.
Liam: So let me ask you this. Do you think (in your process) that you treat your sister as a client if she’s sending you visuals? Ultimately, you have collectively your business client, but you then build it and go back to her and say how does this work? How does that work? Did you like it? Is that a mindset at all that you take? Not necessarily that she’s the boss of you kind of thing but how do you approach that mentally?
Amy: I definitely don’t think of her as a client or as someone I’m trying to please. I’m trying to duplicate what she did to make it functional. I will sometimes send it to her and ask does this look right? Am I missing anything? Is this what you had in mind for this feature? Sometimes I know I’ve got it exactly right and send it straight to the client and say here’s your preview. Take a look and let me know what I’m missing. I find that in the process of going from the flat design to the dynamic website that sometimes there needs to be adjustments and tweaks because things don’t look the same when they’re seeing it for the first time in their browser…the functionality versus the flat pdf file that they’ve been getting.
Liam: Cool. So you talked about success as the ability to have a sustainable business. You talked about your favorite thing is taking your sister’s visuals and converting that into a living breathing website. Thinking about what you like to do and your definition of success, if you had to narrow it down, what is the single most important thing that you can do any given day to help your business achieve that success?
Amy: Well for me really at the end of the day it’s that my clients are getting a website that meets the needs of their clients. So what I tell people is that I want to give you a website that you’re going to love. I want to give you website that your customers are going to love because that’s the people that are going be giving them their income at the end of the day. So we can have a return on investment if they spend money hiring me and then their customers, in that they get more customers or their customers are happier going to their call to action and submitting their forms… then I’ve done what I’m supposed to do. Then they are very happy.
Tara: Do you outsource anything? Do you do analytics or do you do that yourself? Do you work with any partners that provide writing, SEO or any of that?
Tara: How did you find all those resources?
Amy: Well, some of them were friends that I trained. One of them is a neighbor where I happened to I know that he worked from home and he did systems admin. I was like hey! Do you want to help me out sometimes? Another developer friend had an advanced developer that she used, so she referred him. The copywriter is someone I actually knew from Twitter. The other one was a client.
Liam: So I noticed when you were talking about this team of professionals that you have around you, you describe their roles and their tasks and what they do (except for the SysAdmin Ed). I imagine that Ed is your go to individual. Uh oh. Better get Ed. Is that correct?
Amy: Well you know in the past I have had…I have a dedicated server, and I used to offer web hosting to my clients. I don’t anymore, but I still have those old clients that I had then. It was a big thing to be hosting reseller when we started. It was a way to make money, but it got to be too much. My server has gone down, but I help. Why is this email not working? So I needed somebody to help me with that. So as I’ve gotten better hosting and better servers, I haven’t needed him as much. There have been days where I’ve been crying to him to please make things work because I’m going to die.
Liam: Yeah. Sysadmin is tricky at best. I try to steer clear of it. I wish I had an Ed sometimes. That would be very useful.
Amy: I can give you an Ed if you want one.
Liam: (laughing) I got out of hosting a long time ago. Fortunately, I don’t need Ed.
Amy: We don’t sell it anymore, but I have about 130 people that I have to maintain.
Tara: Wow! I’m just starting hosting for people maybe I should not do that.
Amy: I now do affiliate links, and I have a list of the companies I like. I tell my clients here are the ones I would recommend. Choose any of them. They will be great. I don’t offer it to new clients anymore because the possibility of having to buy a new server and have a second server and then maintaining two servers is just not something I want to do after having a couple of giant server issues. When your server goes down with 130 clients on it, then that’s 130 people calling you. I didn’t want to do anymore.
Tara: Yeah that sounds awful. Do you do your own billing?
Tara: Well that also sounds like a billing nightmare.
Amy: Well usually for most of them, they are signing up for a recurring payment, or they pay annually. So it’s not a big deal.
Tara: Do you have maintenance plans for those clients too?
Amy: We do you offer maintenance plans now. We don’t offer to host to new clients, but we do have a variety of support plans that will do their updates, backup their site, and check site security.
Tara: Do you require that of your clients for websites that you built?
Amy: I would like to require it but if somebody asks me can I not do this? I will say yes, but I put in all my proposals there as part of the deal. I’m not hard-core about it.
Liam: Amy? Let me ask you about your involvement and engagement with your local WordPress community…to be part of what we’re doing here online. Tell us is a little bit about how you first became engaged or came across the WordPress community. How do you engage with it on an ongoing basis?
Amy: Well I am my local WordPress community. We have a strong tech community, and we have an open source community, but there is not really a big WordPress community. There is no WordPress Meetup where I live. Indiana is one of the few states that has never had a WordCamp.
Liam: That’s right! WordCamp Indianapolis. There was talk of it a few years ago.
Amy: There has been talk. And talk started coming again, and it still didn’t happen. I would love for there to be one. Indianapolis would be a great place to have one, but I’m too far way to really organize it. I wouldn’t even know where to begin. So my first experience (I had no idea there was even a WordPress community). I was on Twitter, and somebody talked about going to a conference. I said I want to go to a conference. I never get to go to a conference. So I googled WordPress conference, and I saw this thing called a WordCamp just a few weeks later in Las Vegas. I love Las Vegas, and I’m like…let’s got to Los Vegas. That was WordCamp that really changed everything about how our business was working.
Liam: That is awesome!
Amy: That was when I discovered the WordPress community. I didn’t know it existed before then. I was just in my own little hiding hole in my house, and I didn’t have any interaction with other people.
Liam: So how long was it between when you first started getting into WordPress as a business tool that made websites to selling websites and that trip to Las Vegas? Was it years? Was it months?
Amy: That was WordCamp Las Vegas 2013. We started in 2006, so it was quite a stretch.
Tara: Wow! So has your business changed as a result of that? The community resources? What would you say has changed?
Amy: You know everything. Meeting other people that do we did and being able to talk to them was a huge catalyst for us changing the way we did business. Just things that we picked up that I hadn’t thought about like how important blogging is. We hadn’t blogged in eight months, but then we started blogging. The next thing was we’re number one in Google. So I would never have started doing that if it hadn’t been to that conference. Just the way to do proposals and the way to talk to your clients…there were just so many little things that I picked up one at that one conference really changed everything about the success of our business.
Tara: I love to hear that. I had the same experience, and many people have. WordCamps can really change everything.
Amy: Yep. I credit Las Vegas 2013 with turning us from a hobby business into a real business.
Liam: You’re one of the few people to come out of Las Vegas on any trip feeling it was a success. That is awesome. So you’ve been in business since 2006. It took a big bump in 2013 after Vegas. Over the life of your business, what has been the biggest challenge that either you personally (or you and your sister collectively) have had to address, are addressing, or had to overcome in the past? A big challenge?
Amy: Gosh that’s a hard question. I’m not even sure how to answer it. Working together, not arguing and agreeing on things because we definitely have very different aesthetics. Learning how to communicate without offending the other one and working together on these projects; that was a challenge. Then being able to delegate the tasks of running the business, I think was a big challenge. I’m the one doing the proposals and doing the books. She’s trusting me that I’m actually paying her well and that she will be getting paid. So all of that running of the business has been challenging. Learning how to deal with the difficult clients together has been challenging as well.
Liam: Ok. So that can definitely be a challenge; learning to communicate and learning to communicate when there’s that family history. I don’t mean that to be in a negative way. So let me ask you this then. This is one of our questions that we like to ask. What is the single most valuable advice, it can be either professional or personal (maybe both) that you have received and that you followed and implemented in your life or business?
Amy: Write a blog.
Liam: No hesitation there. That was big for you wasn’t it?
Amy: After we went to the Las Vegas WordCamp and there is a session on blogging where they threw out some statistics on websites that have active blogs. I felt well that’s interesting. I said to my sister why don’t we blog every day for a month? We’ll see what happens. So we came up with a very intricate strategic plan that involved her blogging on even-numbered days and me blogging on odd-numbered days. We just started on January 1st, and we did it every day for a month. Traffic on our site went up 165%.
Liam: Wow! That is awesome.
Amy: We were like this really works. We just kept doing it. We don’t’ do it every single day anymore, but we still do it. With our ranking in Google I attribute 99% to blogging that we do.
Tara: Do you promote that on social media?
Amy: Yes we do. It is automatically posted to our Facebook page and Twitter. It’s not something where I spend a lot of time. I don’t do it repeatedly. I don’t strategize about what time. We just post it and put it out there. I don’t spend a lot of time on the blog post. I’ll churn them out in 20 or 30 minutes.
Tara: So are you optimizing them with Yoast or something like that? Is it just organic words or what is it you’re using for coming up in Google?
Amy: I’m not going to say we haven’t optimized in Yoast. Sometimes I do, especially if there’s something that lends itself to a good keyword. I will optimize it and use Yoast. For the majority of what I do, I’m just writing content that I think is going to be useful to somebody. It’s information that I learned or gleaned or figured out somehow, and I’ll share it. Sometimes it’s a tutorial on how to do something. Sometimes it’s about SEO. How to have a good landing page or how to have a great call to action, those kinds of things. That’s what I just share, and it’s organically has let us…I think the last time I checked… We were on page 1 for over 60 different terms. We were in the number one spot for 30.
Tara: Wow! That’s amazing. I met you a couple of years ago at WordCamp US. You told me that story, and I did a 30-day blogging challenge. I don’t think I had nearly that kind of results. You must have some great topics. Do you research them or is it something that you know off the top of your head? That’s a lot of information to have and share.
Amy: Sometimes. Sometimes its things I’ve learned over the years that work and don’t work. Sometimes I’ll struggle and have a blank and start looking on Twitter. What are people writing about? Do I have a take on it? Is there a controversy? You know at the time when we did this in 2013 it was also right when they had Google authorship which we implemented. That played a role in getting us we were. They dropped Google authorship, so people don’t have that anymore.
Tara: Congratulations on that success. That sounds excellent.
Liam: That is very cool.
Tara: Before we go Amy and wrap it up, we want to hear how people can find you in touch with you and see your blog. Can you let us know your website and social media?
Amy: Yeah. We’re at sumydesigns.com. You can Google Sumy Designs. We are number one for that. We’re on Twitter @sumydesigns. My personal twitter is @amymasson. Sumy Designs is a combination of my sister’s name and my name. She is Susan, and I am Amy. So we’re Sumy. My husband is an attorney, and he finds that highly amusing.
Tara: (laughing) That’s great.
Liam: I love that story. Thank you. Amy? It was a huge pleasure getting to know you and spending some time with you this afternoon. Thank you very much. We will see you at a WordCamp soon no doubt.
Tara: We’re looking forward to it.
Amy: I’ll be there.