WPEngine, a hassle-free hosting for WordPress users. Headquartered in beautiful downtown Austin, Texas — the same state where WordPress was born.
Thanks Austin for answering the questions.
Q: Can you tell readers a little about yourself?
My name is Austin W. Gunter. I’m a writer and blogger who gets to help build the community around WP Engine as its Brand Ambassador. I got a degree in rhetoric, yeah, you heard that right, but I graduated from college and started building communities of entrepreneurs and startups. My first job was to build the community of an incubator in Austin. The final count was 120 startups in 2 years.
I like to say that I live and breathe words and people. I’m constantly inspired inside the WordPress community because in every city I visit there are men and women using WordPress to create an incredible and independent life for themselves. It’s to our credit that individuality and being unconventional or even rough around the edges sometimes is appreciated and encouraged. I love being around people who are building things that matter to them personally, and part of my life’s work is to be a hub to connect those people to one another, and tell their stories with my writing.
Some random facts about me are: I drink yerba maté in the morning instead of coffee, but I love espresso. I had both hips replaced when I was 15 because of Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis. The story for that is here: Coming Clean. I feel like more of a human being when I’ve gotten to write that day. I actually have such pleasant associations with writing inside the WordPress interface that just opening it up has a calming effect when I have a stressful day.
Q: When did you start using WordPress?
Well, I built my first website in 2003, but it wasn’t on WordPress. I put together a blog called “Change for Austin” that I used to pay my college tuition and graduate debt-free. It wasn’t until I was starting my second blog in 2009 that I jumped into WordPress. I remember doing the side-by-side comparison between Drupal and WordPress, and seeing that WordPress was the clear winner for so many reasons. In hindsight, that decision was a lot more influential for my life than I could have realized at the time. If I hadn’t put Austingunter.com on WordPress, there’s a good chance I wouldn’t be loving my life or my job as much right now.
Goes to show you how the little decisions we make can have a huge impact on our lives, and that we have a lot to be thankful for every day.
Q. What do you consider to be your strengths and weaknesses with the WordPress platform?
Man, I wish that I could say that I was a much better developer than I am, but I was never amazing at putting code together. I can always hack through things, and I haven’t ever found code I couldn’t write if I needed to, but I always prefer to know who to ask than to know how to do it myself. Another reason the WordPress community is incredible.
My real strength lies in knowing how to focus the extensibility of WordPress in order to make it a powerful instrument of self-expression. When I get to speak at WordCamps, I have a talk about how to add social networks to your site in order to really engage your audience. See, WordPress has almost 20,000 plugins you can add, and if you do a search for “Facebook” in the repository, you’ll get over 1,000 results. You can make WordPress do anything you want, and there are plenty of social networks that we can use to connect with our audience. I always seemed to have a sense for how to engage a very unique audience based on their background, their interests, and their goals. I love helping people craft their brand and their website based on the people the way to reach, and I find that the approach “less is more” is almost always the way to go. Fewer social networks is better than having everything from Facebook to Pinterest, to Reddit, and a HackerNews submit button, and now Digg This.
How can you make sure you’re focusing on the networks where your audience lives?
Start by discovering where they like to share. If your site publishes photos of fashion and caters to a female audience, you should be on Pinterest. If you have a really technical audience, figure out if they’re on Reddit or HackerNews, or Twitter, and pick the most popular network, and only add that widget. Then focus all your content to drive folks to that network.
Q: What would you like to see added to the WordPress core in 2012?
A really cool feature that would make managed hosting much smoother for international users would be the ability to set user-specific languages. So for example, if there are bloggers from China using Mandarin inside WordPress, but they’re hosting at WP Engine, we would benefit from being able to create a user that speaks English. This feature would also be useful with international teams who work remotely, and may represent several different languages. They may communicate in a common language, but it would be amazing for them to use WordPress in their native language.
Q: Is there anything you think that most WordPress themes lack?
They would benefit from a proper theme editor. An well-designed interface will take its cues from how people use it, and what they need to accomplish inside of it. The theme editor is almost identical to the text editor even though the act of writing a post is drastically different than writing code. Adding a few things like syntax highlighting and autocomplete would make a world of difference to a developer in the same way that being able to see formatting of a post makes a difference to a writer.
Q: Who do you admire in the WordPress community?
The honest answer to this is that I meet new people who I admire in the WordPress community all the time. I feel like I’ve found a home here because everywhere I go, there are people using WordPress like a blank canvas to color their lives. I think there are so many ways in our culture and in our economy where people lose their creative spirit and individuality in a job that doesn’t mean anything to them. I haven’t ever met someone who made a living full-time with WordPress that was also “punching the clock.” They’re always pretty excited about what they’re creating, and you can see that when you talk to them. I’m inspired by people who love their work, and who have blazed their own trail. One of my personal mantras is from Richard Branson. He said, “I don’t differentiate between work and play. To me, it’s all living.” I love having work that matters, because then I don’t mind spending my “free time” working. I work 7 days a week most of the time, but I love it. I think most of the folks in WordPress that I know have a similar sentiment.
I love Shawn Hesketh’s design and photography work, as well as what he’s built at WP101. Nobody has done a better job creating a subscription product that helps people get started with WordPress. I’ve also met Shawn’s wife and kids, who are amazing. I think that his family is stronger because Shawn runs a WordPress-based business that is built around who he is as a person.
Bill Erickson is also someone that I admire. He’s awesome because of how deliberate he is about building his business and his lifestyle. Since his background is in finance, he brings that mindset to being a WordPress consultant. If you get a chance, buy him a sazerac and get him talking about how he organizes things. He’s a brilliant example of how to be successful as an independent consultant.
Mason James is a great leader in the community, and he’s also what I consider to be a servant at the same time. I spoke with Mason right after he announced WP Valet, and he was really excited because he had created a business where he could literally just provide excellent support for people’s websites. Mason gives back in a million different ways, like so many people in the community do, and we’re all better for it.
Sarah Cannon is one of my favorite designers. Sarah is doing some really awesome work across the industry right now, including one of my favorite sites, PandoDaily, and she’s very self-effacing and modest about her work. I admire not just the quality of her work, but the way that she goes about her work. She brings a great feminine energy to the community, which I think we can always use more of.
Q: What are your favorite 5 WordPress plugins and why?
My plugin favorites are always things that give me a new way to tell a story by combining media. LIke combining paint with ink. In no particular order…
Blackbird Pie was the first plugin that would embed your tweets into your posts. I use tweets like headers and for emphasis when I write blogs, so I loved that plugin.
I think WordPress SEO by Yoast is an incredible plugin. It combines high-octane SEO tools with a baller user interface, so even non-technical bloggers can make sense of it.
Nrelate is such an incredible plugin for “related posts.” Many related posts plugins have scalability issues, but nrelate does everything off-server, and also uses Natural Language Processing to make its recommendations. That’s killer.
MailChimp’s newsletter plugin is great. I like being able to let people not only subscribe to my posts, but I also like being able to manage their email addresses as well. Feedburner doesn’t let you do that, but Mailchimp does.
Facebook’s plugin is awesome. They reached out to Otto to match his features and take over where he left off with Simple Facebook Connect, and they’re doing an awesome job.
Q: What ís your favorite theme or theme framework and Why?
I actually don’t have a dog in this fight. I’ve changed themes and frameworks before, and I’ll probably do it again. I always start with the needs of the site itself and then work the theme out from there. I’m currently on Genesis and I really like it. However, Headway* has been tempting me because of it’s drag and drop interface, which I think will change the game for a lot of people. I really just love being able to learn about new tools to build sites on WordPress. There are so many good options out there, and I learn so much each time I switch frameworks and themes.
Q: What future plans do you have for WPEngine?
That’s a good question. Since I’m not a founder of this one, I don’t have the final say in the direction of the company, but that also means I get to take direction from Ben Metcalfe and Jason Cohen, the co-founders of the company. What I love about WP Engine is how my own skills as a writer are essential to our marketing and our growth. I have some ideas that I think would help us grow into a company that can serve a very large portion of the WordPress community, and also be a player that contributes back. One thing that I want to do in the next few months is make it really easy for our customers to connect with our company in real life, and then make it easy for them to connect with one another. Since my life’s work so far has been building communities, I want to build the WP Engine community, and make that another benefit of choosing us as a hosting partner.
I also want to make a hosting experience that people love. When was the last time you heard anyone say that they absolutely loved the company that hosted their website? It is happening more and more, and there are several hosts that I hear great things about, but I really want the experience of hosting with WP Engine to be such a wonderful experience that people love us the way that they love Audi or Apple. This will mean a very complete customer experience that we’re working on. It will also mean that as a company, WP Engine continues to be focused on giving back to the WordPress Community as a whole. We’re just a part of that ecosystem.
Personally, I also want to grow my visibility as a blogger. I went to school for a degree in writing and rhetoric, and studied the intersection of digital technology on how we communicate as humans. I wanted to write, but I ended up leaving that behind for a few years as I got my career started, and there were times when I was looking for jobs in the tech startup industry when I wondered if I would have to leave writing behind in order to be successful. I found the opposite to be true. I had a job last year that involved very little actual writing, and not only was I completely miserable, but I was also not as successful for the company as I wanted to be. That taught me the truth about life where the closer I am to my core skills and passions, the more successful I will be, and the happier I am going to be. When I get to write and connect with a community of people, I’m incredibly happy. So I guess what I want is to keep on writing, to keep on working hard, and to keep being happy.