#633 WP-Tonic Interview Show: Finding Your Niche In The WordPress Ecosystem
Withe Special Guest Nathan Monk Co-Founder From Smile
With Special Guest Nathan Monk Co-Founder From Smile a WordPress Agency That Specializes in the building of university websites in the UK and USA.
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Intro: Welcome to the WP tonic podcast where each week Jonathan and his cohost interview, the leading experts in WordPress e-learning and online marketing. Jonathan, take it away.
Jonathan Denwood: Welcome back folks to the WP-Tonic interview show. This is episode 633. We’ve got a great guest. I think it’s going to be a really interesting conversation. We’ve got Nathan Monk, the co-founder from Smile. Smile is a digital agency that has a niche in the higher education sector. Also has produced its own platform, which was talked about recently on the Tavern. They’re doing some interesting things. I haven’t got my co-host disappointment tribe, but he’s off doing some real work, but he will be back next week, the beloved Steven. I’m gonna let Nathan introduce themselves. And then I’m going to talk about our major sponsor and then we’re going to be off. So Nathan can you give us your 30 second elevation pitch? And then we’ll get on with the interview.
Nathan Monk: Well, thank you very much. Yeah. I’m Nathan from Smile and Smile is a company that helps higher education, institutions and organizations with, all manner of things on the internet. So we help senior leaders with digital strategies and often the output is websites. They’re typically high profile, flagship builds as we call them with complex system integrations. And that’s what I do at smile.
Jonathan Denwood: Sounds great Like say before I go into our sponsor advert, what we’re going to be discussing with Nathan it’s obviously smile, its history, how he got into the WordPress ecosystem. Then probably in the second half, we’re going to be talking about the specific, positive and negative parts about his particular niche in the higher educational sector, which should be of great interest to you the developers and inventors out there. And then probably in the bonus content we’ll talk about based on my own experience. And I’ll be interesting to see Nathan’s response, the problems when you’re dealing with larger organizations that are mostly Microsoft based and how you integrate WordPress or other open source systems into a culture that is either Microsoft or Oracle based. Should be a great show I’m looking forward to it.
But before we go into the meat and potatoes, I want to talk about our great sponsor. Obviously, if you’re a regular listener and our sponsors founder was on the show last week. I was traveling and going to a conference, but, Steven and Andrew did a great job and that was Castos. Castos has become a great platform if you’re interested in getting involved in podcasting for yourself or for clients, you need a consistent RSS speed and other elements that will make your podcasting experience much more enjoyable. Castos is just platform and a great team. Their other factor is they’ve got honest, upfront pricing. You just pay one price and you’re not penalized for success. You can do as many podcasts and as many downloads as you like, and you won’t be charged anything different. So you know from day one, what your costs are going to be, you cannot say that we’ve a lot of the other platforms.
I do know that you’re going to say, well, John up and some of them are free. The truth is nothing is for free. And when you look in, they have bandwidth limits and then you also sell your data to third party people Castos does not do that. Go over there, I suggest you buy one of their plans and please, please tell them that you heard about them on the WP-Tonic podcast it helps them, and it really supports the show. So Nathan let’s go into it how did you start in WordPress? And then how did that lead to being the co-founder of Smile?
Nathan Monk: I mean, my experience with WordPress goes way, way back. I remember being at high school and, just kind of really getting into web development stuff. And, before long you come across WordPress in some way or another, and did a few bits there. I actually had a few kind of bad experiences, which turned me off, not just from WordPress, but from just web development for a while.
Jonathan Denwood: I’m so surprised.
Nathan Monk: And then, I went to university and I studied like- visual communication is what I studied. And as part of that, I picked up web development again, because it just seemed like a good way for me to separate myself, I guess, from other people that perhaps hadn’t had that experience and stuff and actually just started to enjoy it again. Towards the ends of my university studies I’d met with, my now co-founder and we graduated in the height of the, financial crisis back in 2009. This was a time-
Jonathan Denwood: You are making me feel very old, very quickly Nathan. Do you know that?
Nathan Monk: That was a time, when in, particularly in design communities, big agencies were asking students to pay for work experience. It was nuts then, and me and a friend. We were like, oh, no, this isn’t the way we’re not going to pay for that. And we said, oh, my friend came to me, have you ever considered starting your own agency? I was like, no, I haven’t. And then just that whole notion got completely out of control. And then, so I remember for our final major project at university, we put this agency together, we rented a studio and everything, and then, the day after we graduated, we were like, right, we’re this business now, but better go and do it. And for the better part of four years, kind of, the typical kind of startup struggles and stuff like that. And then later down that journey,
Jonathan Denwood: If you don’t mind me asking how did you get your initial customers? You start this you know nothing fundamentally about running an agency. The main thing is, lead generation. And, when you start, you have to literally take any client that comes on your radar and you have to deal with their madness as well. But how did you get into a position where you started to have a reasonable flow of leads?
Nathan Monk: We were kind of lucky at university. We’d entered me and a group of friends. We’d entered a few competition briefs and things like that, and won and got paid work off the back of those lecturers at university, kind of introduced us to people like industry briefs and things like that. So we’d managed to develop a bit of a fledgling portfolio before we were out there.
Jonathan Denwood: That’s great. I went to Anglia University and I think they call it the Ruskin Anglia University. I went as a mature student in the night well it was important. I’m the only person in my family ever to go to university. And I had this romantic and, I was in full-time employment, running a successful business. And I went there, I wasn’t prepared to spend four or five years as a part-time student. So I went as a full time and it was a total waste of money and time I actually knew more about web development and design than most of my lectures literally. But the only thing is that it was before the massive student loan racket was imposed upon students. So it didn’t actually cost me any money so that was the only good aspect. I’m just saying that to warn people. The only other thing is a year after I graduated, I decided I wanted that MA for some bizarre reason. Then I went to the London school of print and design. And as a part time, it was an 18 months course. I only had to attend one day a week and the rest I could do remotely. And it was a joyous experience. They were really a fantastic crowd. The lectures actually worked in the industry as graphic designers or developers, and it was a totally different experience. I learned an enormous amount and it just shows you, it just varies doesn’t it?
Nathan Monk: Absolutely, I had my fair share of bad experiences at university as I did good ones. I think it’s just what you make out of the good ones that you kind of take away from. Going into university I had no expectation of starting a business or anything like that. And it was honestly by chance that my now co-founder came over to me in the library. And just said, have you ever thought about starting your own agency with me sort of thing. And like I say, it spiraled from there. But the thing that we really struggled with was the business side of things for years we were very young and naive and thought that things would roll into us and we very quickly found out that’s not how it works at all.
We were kind of lucky enough, I guess, to some extent, to survive those first years and get through them and the hard work and perseverance I hope has paid off. And from there, we kind of got what I see as our first big break, which was where somebody had heard about us through all these various different creative things that we done on websites and stuff. And they happen to work at a local university. And that was initially how we got into this vertical of the education sector.
Jonathan Denwood: Can you tell us a little bit more about what were the initial challenges and you know if you can’t discuss it might have signed a nondisclosure agreement, don’t know but if you did just tell us. Can you tell us what that gig was and how did it pan out?
Nathan Monk: Yeah, I mean the job ended up being, something that we called a virtual campus, and, ultimately it’s not actually what I think you would think to be 2021 in hindsight, it was actually like these kind of Google maps overlay of the campus. And we dropped all of these different pins of different types in there. So you could explore the campus, digitally and all this sort of stuff. And we’d embed it video and embedded 360 stuff. And, at the time it was pretty, pretty out there. It was ahead of its time to some extent, or at least that’s what I like to tell myself. But the challenges, of course were not really the job, wasn’t the project that was the problem it was kind of getting through the door in the first place. And, it was our first experience in, having to pitch and tender for a job, quite serious procurement level and stuff like that.
Today we’ve obtained most of our larger clients by competitive tenders and stuff like that. And the, we won this year and it took over 12 months the process of winning the job took over 12 months to get there. But this was a bit smaller back then, but it was still three bids. You had to do a written submission and then you had to come and do a presentation and you had to meet the brief and all those sorts of things. And that was, an eye opener for us. And, there’s a lot of conversation about procurement tenders and free pitch in, and all that sort of stuff for a long time, we’ve, done that.
Jonathan Denwood: We’re going to be delving into all this in the second half and the bonus because I don’t know if you’re going to agree we got a couple of minutes before we have to go for our break Nathan. It’s so easy to underbid for these type of contracts and find out when you actually look at the amount of hours that you’re working for minimum wage that it’s actually damaged your business rather than being- the only good thing is that you hope they are going to open more doors for you, but you can’t keep doing jobs where you’re are hardly making any money and you’re making less than the minimum wage can you?
Nathan Monk: Yeah, it’s very true, definitely one of the bigger pitfalls to watch out for.
Jonathan Denwood: And it’s so easy to underbid when you’re in a pre-bid situation, isn’t it?
Nathan Monk: Yeah. There’s a lot of different types of tenders and they can make it much harder sometimes as well. There are some tenders where, there’s literally no budget guidance at all. So you are kind of just pitching out there and taken against the brief. And sometimes, you get the range of stuff and you’re like, well, obviously I need to bid at the lower end of that to win the job. And there’s other tenders where they’re like, well, the lowest bid will get a hundred percent of the mark for this. And suddenly you find yourself in kind of a race for the bottom to some extent and that’s dangerous. That is dangerous because I think it makes you question the value and worth of your time. And I think that’s one thing that you need to be really confident about is this is how I price the way that we bid for work and that’s-
Jonathan Denwood: Well, you’ve got to be in a financial position where you can just walk away from the job.
Nathan Monk: Yeah, yeah, yeah. And in the formative years of business, that can be really difficult because that’s where every contract counts. And it’s really difficult, but you can’t see the wood for the trees, like you said, because, sometimes it’s counter-intuitive, and whilst you may have won the contract, you may have won the money you over served in that-
Jonathan Denwood: It’s very similar to our personal lives as you get a little bit mature. You concentrate on finding the right partner, finding the person to share your life. But the true thing is the key to that is knowing when to walk away from the wrong people and walk away quicker than later and a lot people don’t understand that do they Nathan?
Nathan Monk: Yeah, it’s so true. So true that kind of, not all contracts are good contracts either. You can sometimes find yourself in almost toxic relationships in a work context as well.
Jonathan Denwood: Yeah. I think that’s right. Well, I think it’s time for us to go for our break when we come back, we’re going to, I think it’s been- I’ve been talking a little bit too much, I feel but hopefully I’ve contributed a little bit and I haven’t spoilt the interview for you tribe. But I think it’s been a great interview and we got some great, useful insights for you. We’ll be back in a few moments.
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Jonathan Denwood: We are coming back we’ve got the co-founder of Smile Nathan monk. We’ve been talking about his niche his experience. I think it’s been great. Also just want to point out you’ve listened, to, launch Flows’ advert, both with launch Flows and Castos, they are offering a great special deals to the WP-Tonic tribe. With Castos, you get six months, at 50 % reduction, for Launch Flows you get a special lifetime deal. All you have to do is go to the WP-tonic backlink newsletter and you’ll see those special offers and you want to take them out. So Nathan so you’ve kind of built this niche, you got your first break, it led to some other work, and then you came on, like we would discussed before we went live, you got on my radar about that piece in the Tavern. And about you attempting to build out a more flexible more, this is my interpretation of the piece is that you’re attempting to build a more flexible, more focus sub take of WordPress that’s really focused on higher education, but still open source in its fundamentals and philosophy. Would I be correct in that summary?
Nathan Monk: I think that’s a pretty, pretty good summary actually. Yeah. I mean, I’d be happy to talk to you about how we got to that point, and kind of how we got there. So after we kind of won that first job in higher Ed, we found out that as a community, higher Ed, word spreads and people talk.
Jonathan Denwood: I’m amazed.
Nathan Monk: It’s a great thing, when you do good work, it’s absolutely fantastic. If you have another-
Jonathan Denwood: Higher education and gossiping I would never, I would never believe it.
Nathan Monk: But we quickly won more work just through word of mouth. And eventually we decided to double down. So at that time we were still kind of traversing many different sectors and trying to kind of Jack of all trades, if you’d like, and then we made this decision a couple of years in, after we picked up more work that we were in a really double down on the higher ed space and become a digital agency for higher ed. and that back then for whatever reason, work just catapulted and we were just getting loads of work through the door. And I think it’s because people that they kind of knew what Smile was about at that point. And so then we built up this portfolio of work. And one of the things that we really began to notice is that there’s, yes, there’s lots of, projects and they’re all for different universities and different needs and things like that. But fundamentally the requirements are actually largely shared and there’s lots of similarities between projects and universities and requirements and needs and all that sort of stuff. And I got involved with the community several years back now, WP campus, which is literally where WordPress and education meets fantastic community-
Jonathan Denwood: I spoke to one of the major organizers, Sherry, and I tried to join it and I didn’t find it a most welcoming community actually. I tried to ask people on the show and I got the normal passive aggressive response, which is no response. I found it a very cliquey community basically, obviously you’re going to disagree with me I thought I would be honest with you. So your experience has been totally different.
Nathan Monk: I felt with WP campus that I’d really found, like I found my people I’d found my tribe there, I didn’t realize there was such a big community around these two things that I was involved with WordPress and higher education, and I’ve had so many positive experiences out of it. And, yeah, I’m sorry to hear you haven’t.
Jonathan Denwood:[Inaudible] I think I’m pretty friendly maybe I should [inaudible] my attempt to get involved with it.
Nathan Monk: I’ll find you in the slack and show you some love. Don’t worry. They run conferences every year, so pre pandemic their in-person conferences and I’d flown out and kind of attended some of them and, met some really interesting people with some cool ideas. And, that’s where I then kind of met my co-founder in a new venture that I’m part of, which is EDU-pack. And, Blake, who is that person, he kind of presented this work that he’d done for Tulane University. I was like, whoa, that’s so cool. We’ve got people coming to us with the same thing we should have a chat and see if this can go anywhere between the two of us or whatever. And, Blake then flew out to the UK later on a holiday. We met for a coffee in Oxford and just one thing led to another. And we were like, oh yeah, we could totally do something. And again, before you know it here, I am doing this thing called EDU-Pack. And ultimately I think it is a collective effort of our experiences in both WordPress and higher Ed. We’re trying to fill the gap in WordPress, that higher Ed needs day to day.
Jonathan Denwood: Well, that’s really interesting what you just said, because as you were saying it, I think that’s one of the strengths, but could also be one of the- can be a slight negative for the WordPress community. The strength is that you are meeting these people. They could be kind of slightly in the same sector they could be competitors, but there’s a more of a community corporative community vibe about the WordPress community which you don’t get in other sectors of open source or more traditional software models. But the only problem is you could also lose focus on your own agency that go into these corporative and they suck a lot of time and you can’t make a living out of it basically. Do you think there’s anything thinking what I’ve just said in that? How do you balance that out yourself?
Nathan Monk: Balancing act is, it, is very difficult to balance both of those interests. And with EDU-Pack we kind of made this decision pretty early on to basically put a year of work into free, and build out, work with educators and marketers and developers to understand the needs that we could help them with. I think I’m fortunate in as much as the two projects that I’m working on Smile and EDU-Pack. They’re not that different from one another. There’s definitely ways in which they complement one another. So the learnings that I learned in EDU-Pack for example, only enhances what I take back to the team at Smile. So as long as they’re not completely, in complete juxtaposition of one another, yes, it’s a balancing act certainly of time. and I’m lucky enough to have a fantastic team around me at smile that I can get to help me with tasks that I may not be able to do because my focus is drawn somewhere else. But also I hope that I’m contributing a lot of extra value in bringing that stuff from EDU-Pack back into smile, too.
Jonathan Denwood: One of the things about the Tavern article that was slightly I won’t confusing. But I thought This is only my personal take on the actual piece Nathan is, and I’m pretty much an I’ve said this publicly a few times I love the jet. Don’t get me wrong I love the Jetpack team as a group of people when we could go to word-camps. They were always there and I find them some of the coolest people at word camps and the most generous in their time. But as a platform I despise Jetpack, I absolutely despise it with a passion I think it’s one of the biggest lighter crap in the WordPress ecosystem. Can you seem to be pitching to jet pack? And I thought, this is a shame. This is craziness in its highest why would you want to pitch yourself to something that’s total crap? I don’t know if I- You seem to be laughing and taking it in the right spirit, but can you explain. Has your position change or do you feel I’m totally incorrect in what I’m saying? Because a lot of people do totally disagree with me
Nathan Monk: Your position is not uncommon. I must add, particularly in the HE community, and before Jetpack made quite a lot of changes, the kind of below where perception was definitely rife. I don’t have, I don’t have an opinion either way necessarily on jet pack. What I think I quite like about jet pack is the sustainability of its business model to some extent. And that’s something that initially we are very keen to look at and replicate. We spoke to some great people at Automattic from news pack and stuff like that as well, which is kind of similar-ish type of affair. But so actually more of our influences are taken from things like news pack, but not so many people know news pack as they do jet pack I suppose. But, our take is constantly evolving. I was in a slack discussion today about, how do we make all of this happen? We wanna be really sure that it’s, it’s not about people. We don’t want to be exclusionary to the point where EDU-Pack is only for people that can afford it. We want to make it so that everybody can, use EDU-Pack. But we also want to way to be financially sustainable as well.
Jonathan Denwood: Are you questioning your linkage with jetpack a little bit more or are you still committed to having this link to the hip to Jetpack?
Nathan Monk: Oh, no, there’s no link to Jetpack. I think more than anything, that’s where we’ve drawn inspiration from how we might run the business side of things. But at least now there’s lots of different avenues that are on the table that we’re exploring and we run monthly, we call them brain trusts. We run monthly brain trusts with our higher Ed professionals every month. And they’re really keeping us grounded. We like to get the feedback from them. They tell us how they want it to work and we build features, and our approach around them. So the jet pack kind of model was just the starting point away back now. And now we’re being led by the sector. And like I say, constantly developing, we’ve got these kind of stretch goal if you’d like to have something in our cloud offer launched later this year. But like I said, we’re just constantly reassessing.
Jonathan Denwood: It’s definitely needed because people are not aware of some of the most popular CAC forms are very open source or [inaudible] commercial. They’re either very old, very basic or they’re very, very basic and very, very expensive. People will be at a [inaudible 31:39 ]the tools that are out there aren’t they?
Nathan Monk: One of the driving factors was, it costs on average, a university, $15,000 to create a micro-site and it shouldn’t. It just shouldn’t.
Jonathan Denwood: There are some reasons to that, that are not only about technology which we are going to be discussing in the bonus content.
Nathan Monk: This is true but yeah I think today’s technology can afford a lot of pace and there are definitely some cultural changes that can happen in the sector and things like that. But also I think that, there are some definite advantages that we can implement that immediately will help universities and colleges to be more prolific in their content generation.
Jonathan Denwood: All right, we’re going to wrap up the podcast part of the show Nathan is going to stay on for our bonus content. You can watch the bonus content and the whole interview on the WP tonic Facebook page, and also join us on the WP tonic Facebook mastermind group page, where, you’ll be able to see our live Friday show, our outrageous round table show. You’ll also be able to see my personal rants against, certainly individuals in the WordPress community and in tech in general, I know you find that very entertaining. And you can also join our newsletter and really be part of the tribe. Like I say, go to WP-Tonic backlink newsletter and also sign up for our newsletter, and really get the inside scoop about my views and that Nathan how can people find out more about you and more about smile?
Nathan Monk: Well, the easiest way is to go to, wearesmile.com. You can find out about us there, and there should be links to all the different places that you can find out about us. LinkedIn, we run lots of LinkedIn live streams and things like that there. I would definitely recommend that people go and visit us on wearesmile.com.
Jonathan Denwood: That’s fantastic. We’ll see you next week remember go over to WP tonic Facebook page and watch the bonus content. We’ll be back next week. And I’ll be back with my great looking and more intelligent co-host Steven next week. And we got some I know I say this but actually in the next 2 months we got some like Nathan but we got some real heavy hitters and fantastic guest coming on the show. I think you’re going to be blown away with the interviews and we’re finishing, well and strong to the end of the New Year. We’ll be back next week with another great interview we’ll see you soon bye.
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