We have a great interview with the Founder and CEO of illuminea, Miriam Schwab. illuminea, a full-service WordPress development and online marketing agency. Also Founder & CEO of Strattic, a serverless publishing solution for WordPress websites that makes them more secure, faster and scalable.
WordPress expert, technologically savvy. Previous experience in intellectual property. Interested in connecting with businesses seeking to improve their Internet presence for English-speaking markets. Specialties: WordPress, WordPress development, website design and development, social media marketing, SEO.
Here’s A Full Transcription of Interterview With Miriam Schwab
John Locke: Welcome to WP-Tonic episode 204 and today we have the immense pleasure of having as our guest Miriam Schwab of Illuminea. Did I say that right?
Miriam Schwab: You did well almost. Nobody ever gets it right, its illuminea we put a little ‘e’ ‘a’. Oh yeah there you go.
Miriam Schwab: But your fine nobody ever says it correct.
John Locke: And also my co-host, Jonathan. Introduce yourself really quick.
Jonathan Denwood: Oh hi there folks. I am the founder at WP-Tonic, a service maintenance support company in the WordPress space we’re your trusted partner, aren’t we John?
John Locke: Trusted as always. I want to ask you Miriam you have a very interesting story when it comes to the getting into web development and later WordPress. What was your path to web development? How did you come to be an agency founder?
Miriam Schwab: So basically it started after I had my fourth kid I was on maternity leave and I had been working in a regular job. I felt like I needed more room to learn things and to make decisions and for creativity and things like that and I had always loved computers when I was growing up so I took the opportunity to let Google teach me. Google is my teacher and I started to learn web development. I started with you know just HTML and CSS and I started to offer that kind of service so just like a basic static website. Then I saw what a pain it was every time a client needed to change a sentence that was the worst. I did not want to be that person. So I started looking for CMS and at that time WordPress at that time was still considered very much just a blogging platform and so I checked it out, I checked out and I really fell in love with WordPress. I liked the templating system and it was logical and the user experience in the admin area was also I thought superior to the other platform so I started to teach myself that and I was convinced that WordPress was going to become a very important business tool and people would need it. But at that time, people weren’t convinced of that so I had to educate the locals and really market it in a way and so I wrote a lot of blog post and I joined a lot of communities and really tried to get that idea out there. Then we signed our first business client who just wanted a blog at that time who wanted the whole site and this was very exciting. It was a pretty big Israeli company and then we took it from there. Then I think it was three WordPress into CMS and also companies started realizing that they didn’t have to do with the enterprise grade solutions which were very problematic – that had vendor lock in and there had developed enough. They started looking for WordPress and because we had started when we did we had that early advantage. We started working with bigger organizations and companies, and the rest has been history.
John Locke: I think that’s really interesting what you said. Early on it was seen as just a blogging platform, and now in 2017 it’s accepted as a CMS. But what are the challenges that you have, had or having now even pitching WordPress as a CMS to these larger clients? Or do you even just say is it WordPress? Do you pitch it explicitly?
Miriam Schwab: So what happened was along the years of us doing this, it been about ten years I think companies started to look for WordPress themselves. So I didn’t have to go and preach to them and say “WordPress is a better option than XY or Z or whatever”. It was that they were considering because they started to learn that that is what they needed to look for. So that wasn’t the challenge. But the internet is changing now. Well, it’s been changing – well it’s changing always – but there is a change happening that is making it a challenge now. So I actually started I founded a startup a year ago and the startups goal is to solve a few of these issues. What happens is, as I am sure you are aware, the WordPress ecosystem is very large. So for hackers, the ROI on WordPress sites is very high, because there is one vulnerability and [it affects] millions of sites. So our clients started getting hacked too often and it became very painful for us. The hacking became automated, so it was wide spread and our clients were paying us to keep their sites alive. Well and the other two issues that we were facing are related to speed and scalability. All the database calls were not keeping up and the site speed, especially with Google saying speed is a ranking factor, became something the clients really cared about from a user experience point of view. And the scalability. If the site suddenly gets a lot of traffic and the servers can’t handle it because it was very resource intensive. So many technology companies – I was just talking to a guy now I said “Do you guys have a site?” and he’s a startup founder, and he said “Yeah and he said Node.JS, I said why Node.JS? he said security and speed so I found that the startup called Strattick essentially to bridge those two worlds and what it does is that it publishes the native WordPress site which is behind a log in as a live static server less version and that live version doesn’t have database issues it doesn’t have an abilities that runs faster scalable because of this challenge I truly believe in WordPress still as an excellent solution it’s a great marketing tool, marketing departments love it and they want it and they’re write through it, it integrates well with third party services like Salesforce, hub Spot but it has these performance issues and so we’re hoping that our solution will help with that.
John Locke: Do you think We’re going to see more applications like that where WordPress is used to maybe as the database for a place to import content and events distributed out via different applications? Are we going to see a lot more of that and is that going to help its growth?
Miriam Schwab: It’s a good question because one of the things that attracted me to WordPress in the beginning was the default theme actually. The default theme at that time was called I think Kubrick, I don’t know if you guys remember that. it was really well structured and that’s how I learned WordPress it was like this is the sidebar this is the Header this is the footer these are the tags you know all that kinds of stuff it has become in my opinion the default theme has become much more complex in order to like prove the capabilities of WordPress but on the other hand I think it’s kind of a shame because it could be used as an excellent tool WordPress or learn WordPress like if you have a really good default theme rather than a lot of the garbage that is out there filled with code that is unnecessary and fills up for no reason that I think will help people learn I really believe and that’s how I learned and I just think seeing a well-structured site, a well coded site and learning how it’s built is the best way to learn I think that is one way to make the (unclear 11:30) lower the other thing is the installation process is still easy which is great and now I was just at Work Camp Europe in Paris which was fantastic by the way it was such an excellent conference and it was lots of fun to swing fun to catch up with all these people from WordPress community but (unclear 11:53) and I spoke he does a Q&A kind of thing and he introduced the Gutenberg editor which is the new visual editor which is replacing the old one which is very good because the old one is you know, it’s time has come but the good thing about the Gutenberg editor is that it will make managing content from a visual point of view I think much much easier so let’s that’s a theoretical that this great (unclear 12:27-12:30) and that default theme has Gutenberg and then anybody can take that default theme and lay out the page however they want easily and beautifully then I think that definitely helps with that as well and brings it in line with what I think has been threats that’s have been developing from the other web develop website builder type platforms like (unclear 12:55-12:58) and now this is making it possible for everyone to do as well in WordPress so that is an excellent development and it gives me a lot of hope.
John Locke: and I agree a lot with what you’re saying because I talked to me and myself talk to a lot of businesses that are connected to small businesses level and the way that they experienced workers different for everyone for some people it’s like how they interact with a theme, for some people it’s like a beaver builder, or new commerce or something. but a lot of people are coming over from something like (unclear 13:33) and they expect a certain level of you know you just put stuff here and it works and what you see in the back end is translated to how it looks on the front on the side and I do think that the current WordPress editor falls really short in that regard so hopefully this year it looks like they are taking some steps to eliminate that you know what are some things that you would like to see then implement in the next year or two?
John Locke: Absolutely I agree with what you are saying we’re going to pause for a break for just a few seconds and when we come back we’re going to be talking more with Miriam swap of the illuminae did I say that right that time?
Miriam Schwab: Yeah good job.
John Locke: Okay, perfect.
John Locke: We are coming back from our break we are talking more with Miriam Schwab of illuminea. Before the break we were talking about word camp Europe how it has grown from 700 people to 2,000 people what I wanted to ask you is, in your neck of the woods in Israel what is the WordPress Community like there?
Miriam Schwab: So it’s smaller obviously because we are a much smaller country. So I actually organized WordCamp the last five times that it happened in Israel. You get a really nice turnout and people are very enthusiastic and the speakers that we get are such high quality. There is a very technology-oriented to work purse along with everything else and so the last time we had a one was very high level development track and then we had the speakers from HP and just like an amazing and very fascinating talks and then he had like a mid-level implementer type class which is great and a content track and people are happy and like to get air and learn and we actually have generally been doing it for no charge so it makes it more accessible for everyone who wants to come and have fun but we have tried to have meetups and that’s been more difficult to make happen and sustain a meetup competes with a lot of here in people’s lives because Israel is a very family oriented once people finish work they are going home like in most cases so it is hard to get them to stick around and there is a lot of tech events in general so competing with that so that has been hard to get off the ground but we have some really good Facebook groups for the Israeli WordPress community and so Hebrew is a right-to-left language like Arabic and Farsi and one of the team members of automatic is a guy named (unclear 19:33) who is Israeli and so he is contributing a lot to that whole right to left area which is amazing for us so even though a lot of the web sites that we build are English they are for Israeli companies that are targeting outside of Israel so that Hebrew support is fantastic so now I am not the lead organizer for word camp anymore. Word camp central created a regulation that you can only do it twice in a row and I have done it 5 times so I am way past the limitation which is fine for me I am so happy to not be leading it and so another guy will be leading it the next time and hopefully we will be able to announce a date soon.
John Locke: I definitely have some follow-up questions from that last block of commentary and one of them is you know, you mentioned you were a five time word Camp leader how did you kind of mentor the next person or the next group of people to be taking over the word Camp responsibilities?
Miriam Schwab: So I am still going to be involved as a volunteer and one of the things that I have learned after organizing it all these times is to replicate processes for each one. So the hardest part of organizing a word Camp is finding a suitable venue and date. That’s the hardest thing because you need to be able to find the right place with the right facilities and it should be available at the right time. once you have done that almost everything else falls into place and when I organized it I really tried to find a place that didn’t charge us because I wanted us to not go into this with debt of course there was other expenses but I wanted us to know that we are okay it made me nervous that we wouldn’t be able to have enough sponsorship and all that kind of stuff so that would be hard to find the new organizer I think we’ll be finding like a more standard type of place and so that’s that but once it is chosen then after that it is processes I have Google Docs and forms and all sorts of things that we just reuse every time like the speakers and then we email all the speakers and then we have a doc filtering all the speakers and then voting on the speakers so it’s all set up so the first couple times it was like much more work but it’s still a ton of work don’t get me wrong but we just process this and then it mostly works so yeah.
John Locke: Sweet and then the other thing I wanted to ask you is that you know you mentioned like a lot of your clients are there in Israel but they are reaching out to you know, the U.S and Europe different places like ideally they are doing business as in different places but how do you get in front of your clients or how do they find you? How do you get on their radar?
Miriam Schwab: We are kind of lucky right now it’s pretty much all word-of-mouth. I think it’s probably like the Tech Community is relatively small and people know people so basically it goes like this I know I need help with my work test you know anyone else that can and also that is the best way to get business because you have overcome a lot of hurdles that you need to (unclear 23:04). a trustworthy recommendation means the world but in the beginning in order to start generating business basically I chose a path of positioning myself as a thought leader it’s just what works for me I can’t do cold calling or cold emailing and those things are so not for me but what I can do is get up on a stage at a conference and speak and I found that that is one of the best ways to position yourself as a thought leader and then business recommendations often comes from that. it’s not instant like I remember speaking at a conference and nobody kept in touch and I was like oh well and then six months later someone who was at a conference recommend me to someone who was not even there and then the business comes from that and like it has snowball effect over the years in a way so in the beginning it was slower but at this point thank God we have positioned ourselves as the WordPress experts pretty much in Israel. We do have competitors but we are in a pretty strong position from that point of view and we try to provide and excellent service to our clients and keep them happy so that they will hopefully want to communicate more with us and hopefully recommend us to their friends so at one point I did try to grow the company I was like you are going to be a big we’re going to have lots of projects and that was a really bad idea I didn’t do it well other people do it well but I don’t do that well it was hard to manage more people and make sure that the quality of the work was good so then I paired everything back down again to a team of four take on only specific types of projects like certain size and we only do customized work now you don’t work with existing or anything like that and if clients want that then great we are here for them and if not like I actually recommend them to Freelancers I have a few freelancers that I know so I understand that when you are on a budget but these people can do a good job of implementing your site for you.
John Locke: One last question before I kick it over to Jonathan, and that is you know you mentioned that you have kind of figured out what your perfect sized project is what your type of project is that you want to specialize in how long did it take you to kind of learn how to or what that’s sweet spot was for you and how hard was it initially to say no things that fell outside of that?
Miriam Schwab: I learnt the very hard way of making lots of very costly mistakes so the WordPress Market or web development is very commoditized so people are competing on price so when you are in that situation it means that you are taking on projects where your clients expect a very high level of service and it doesn’t matter to them how much they are paying and you can’t or a person can’t provide that level of service if they’re not getting paid enough you just can’t. A WordPress project involves planning we do international stage because we learned. We do initial wire framing stage and a specification stage where we map everything out to get their approval on that and then there is a design stage which by the way we also learnt the hard way not to do in house we now send clients to a studio that we partner with and we say just do the design there and bring the design back to us. we found it hard to manage the design side of a project it’s just not our strong point and then the development and training and customer support and Q&A and launch and then post launch Q&A. it’s a really time consuming thing and people don’t realize it they are like “oh its five step install just press and have a website” like no, it only looks that way and I often say to clients, if you let me do the site as I think should be done we could do it quickly but it is your site and you have input witch you should and you have opinion and you know what you want better than I do and that’s why it takes longer because we are charging you essentially for all the discussions. just the discussions can take hours so that has to be calculated in the pricing so all of that I had to learn the hard way over many years of making constant mistakes but we eventually figured out what our hourly rate need it to be and then we figured out how to estimate projects and certain projects we will give a fixed price and certain projects we won’t because there is just too many unknowns and so we will work hourly and like I learned to say no because if I said yes to the wrong thing we all would pay a gigantic price in the end. the client will be happy you know it’s not like you are flexible for them and they can’t appreciate it no we would not be happy because we had become entrenched in this horrible situation and so things forced me to learn to say no it’s not because I am so smart it’s just cause I make lots of mistakes.
John Locke: Here we go. Jonathan?
Jonathan Denwood: All that was great it reminds me of our last interview with Blair Enns and it like this one, a great interview and he is well-known or how to win without pitching. Related to what you just said, have you gone into more an attitude of value pricing than fixed pricing? Where you have a discovery stage and you basically don’t pitch to clients when the spec is out there you don’t reply to it they come to you would that be right?
Miriam Schwab: I’m not sure what the value pricing scenario is but I will explain how we build up our pricing. So we don’t really pitch. Actually, like very often actually, even though our clients are in Israel they will approach us or they will have an initial discussion of what they are looking for. Sometimes not even in person. Then we will do a video conference or just a call, and then we will send an initial proposal. Sometimes we never end up meeting in person. Basically they come to us with a need. we say either, “this is what it would cost to do this” or I often say “this is our minimum price for a project, but your project is more complex than this, so it will cost more”. Then they will have at least a clue about what we charge. Or if it’s something that is really not clear to them or to us, then we charge them for a site specification stage. We say at the end of this stage you’re welcome to take this to anyone else, but we cannot actually price this out without going through this stage. we can’t absorb the cost of that stage because we are talking about 10, sometimes 20 hours of meetings with different people on their teams. We write a specification document with the functionalities, so we actually charge for that and only then do we provide generally a fixed price proposal at that point because we know everything, we have asked all the questions. So when I’m not going around the pitching so much it’s more like responding.
Jonathan Denwood: We are very surprised seeing these around the philology that you know, what values are you providing the client in financial terms if you are going to get a like two times or four times return on your investment. Your pricing model is based on the benefit and return the client will get from the investment rather than-
Miriam Schwab: Well actually, over the years I have looked into the various methods and the problem with WordPress is or what we do is it’s not like we can say we will build this site for you and then you will make more money. It’s very hard to make that correlation right and also a lot of it depends on them, we can build an excellent site but then if they don’t let’s say create a good content around it they are not going to make more money because they are not going to generate traffic so it’s very hard to say what the value is. On the other hand, I guess you can say what we say what we say the value is, is that a lot of people come to us who have been burnt by other providers and things like that and our value is that we will pay attention to you and take the project from start to finish and we will also make sure to be there for you after launches so that if there are any issues you can turn to us and that is a peace of mind value that our clients will pay for so I guess that explains it.
Jonathan Denwood: Oh yes there was a recent blog post on website around where he dealt and did videos about where he films the middle ground is where the real growth is and that middle ground is providing quality web development and quality client handling but also the other elements are driving traffic, quality content a whole package where you can provide argument where you can get those kinds of returns but that is increasingly complex and getting the right client that Is prepared because that’s an even deeper involvement, isn’t it?
Miriam Schwab: Yeah so there is two problems with that approach in my opinion one is what I also learnt over the years at one point we were providing SCOs or services and online marketing services and while they complement each other in web development and the marketing side of it they are different focuses and we weren’t doing it well and I learnt that we needed to be laser focused on doing what we do really well because that will make our clients happy, make sure the projects are profitable for us, and gain referrals and that’s why we dropped that and like I mentioned we even dropped the design side of things because we weren’t well like we were designing well the process of taking a client through design, designing was the most painful thing for me because it was so subjective (unclear 33:58) and we just didn’t have it in us to manage it well so we just so rather than try to do all these complimentary things we became laser-focused and actually the business side of things the complimentary thing that we did started to offer was ongoing maintenance and support and hosting some clients don’t want the hosting but they want the support to keep the site updated and doing well and even though many of our clients are tech companies who clearly have the capabilities it’s interesting tech companies the engineers don’t want anything to do with the website and the company doesn’t want them to have anything to do with the website because they would rather them use their talents and their skills to develop whatever it is that they are developing right because it is a great value for the company so then you end up with the marketing people in charge of the website and they do an okay job on the content side but they get stuck on the coding and less awareness of security and all that kind of stuff so that’s where we come in and provide that other type of peace of mind where we’re here for you, you know if anything goes wrong we will take care of it and that has a lot of value for them but that’s a risk that has become much more painful over the years.
John Locke: I just want to comment to you that that’s something that we both encountered individually and collectively the same thing that you just described with retainers.
Miriam Schwab: That it has become more painful?
John Locke: Not that it has become more painful but that in tech companies the marketing ends up running the site and the engineers are doing internal stuff
Miriam Schwab: Oh yeah interesting it makes sense.
Jonathan Denwood: What would- can I ask why it has become more?
Miriam Schwab: Sure. so when we started offering that service it was pretty like worthwhile for us from a profitability point of view and actually from our own peace of mind because if the clients site isn’t working it doesn’t matter if they didn’t do what they needed to do they are still going to blame us so in a way we also provide the service so that they couldn’t come back to blame us you know we’re taking care of it it’s all running fine but over the last few years the amount of hacking attempts have become greater and its automated so we are talking about bots that are doing the hacking rather than an individual which is just like I’m going to target that site and like even though we are experts in that field and we keep up to date with everything and we patch vulnerabilities as fast as we can, if vulnerabilities are published while we are sleeping and then we wake up we and start patching things there is that window of opportunity for the hackers to get in and it has become very challenging and even the attempt to hack the site like brute force attacks it sends a lot of traffic to these sites to the point where that on its own can take it down. we had one client, a cyber company who on a Friday was pitching in San Francisco so the time zone difference like what we have right now which means is that the end of our days and the beginning of their day also Friday is not a work day in Israel we work Sunday through Thursday so like where available but we are not my team is not really active and they are onstage pitching these ideas. It was a nightmare and that kind of thing started happening too frequently we found ourselves starting dealing with all sorts of nightmares situations where instead of being able to progress with the projects we are working on we were busy trying to just you know clean up malware, stopping these attacks somehow, you know that kind of stuff so yeah it has become a much more challenging now much more time consuming unfortunately.
Jonathan Denwood: Thanks so much for that insight. I think it’s time to wrap up the podcast part of the show John and we are going to go on to some bonus content that people can watch on our YouTube channel.
John Locke: Correct, and one thing I want to encourage people to do and before we let everybody- let the audience know where they can find them. if you are getting value from this podcast we encourage you to go to iTunes and leave a positive review let people know what you think and like I said we are going to have 10 or 15 minutes of bonus content on the YouTube channel so you can check that out on the WP Tonic site or our YouTube channel. So with that Miriam how do we get ahold of you and is there anything you want to say to check out?
Miriam Schwab: Yes, so first of all you can find me on Twitter @MiriamSchwab. I’m a little bit more active and colorful on Facebook and I am happy for people to become friends with me there. I just gave a talk at WordCamp Europe which people really enjoyed, I got a lot of positive feedback it’s about WordPress security for all and I recommend that people check it out. It’s on the WordCamp Europe site right now. It’s like one giant video, but they are going to be divided I’m sure they can still find it there and I would like people to check out our new security products, Strattic which aims to solve the issue that I mentioned before about the maintenance and support by publishing these websites and static server less sites so please check that out and if you have any questions about anything that we spoke about now, security or Strattic, running an agency feel free to tweet me I’m always happy to help.
John Locke: Definitely and we will link that stuff up. Jonathan how do you get a hold of you?
Jonathan Denwood: That’s quite easy folks. You can get me on Twitter at Jonathan Denwood or you can email me at [email protected]
John Locke: Excellent and you can find me at my website which is lockdowndesign.com you can also follow me on Twitter @Lockedown_ find me on Facebook – Lockedowndesign – all one word. For the WP-Tonic we are saying peace out and get your dose.
Why don’t you join us on Facebook every Friday at 9 am PST and be part of our live show? You can ask questions and be part of the discussion. https://www.facebook.com/wptonic/
To see a list of upcoming Friday & Wednesday shows during the month go to https://www.wp-tonic.com/blab/.