Interview with Simon Dickson

My previous blog post from WordCamp Europe made Simon Dickson from Automattic to contact me. Simon is on the WordPress.com VIP team, leading business development in Europe, and he also would like to see more European agencies capable of doing larger-scale WordPress projects.

We talked with Simon quite a bit during the second day of WordCamp Europe. Simon has a good view of the WordPress agency market in the US and Europe, and he shared good insights about what makes a successful WordPress agency.

Another interesting topic in our discussions was the shyness and modesty that is more typical to European cultures than in the US. Simon said many times that European agencies are too shy about their skills and reference projects. Based on my own experience, that is something that is very easy to agree on.

So, here goes. Edited and condensed version of our talk.

Let’s start from the basics. What is WordPress VIP? Are you an agency or a hosting platform?

“Most people probably would call us a hosting product, but we see ourselves more as a service. We sell hosting space on the WordPress.com infrastructure. Same servers, same caching, same support team that looks after WordPress.com. All the same tools and processes that we had to build to run WordPress.com. It is easy for us to say to our premium VIP hosting customers that “we know how to run busy websites, we do it every day”. For us, every day is somebody’s Super Bowl. We just deal with it. For example TechCrunch runs on our platform.

We also provide support for sites which clients need to host somewhere else for some reason. And we maintain a list of VIP Featured Partners, who are among the most experienced agencies there are.

Part of our job is to be an ambassador for WordPress. When we bring these high-profile customers to WordPress, we’re providing evidence that WordPress can operate at huge scale. And we hope this helps convince site owners at all levels. It is our way of helping to build an ecosystem.

Having said that, we run this as a business. Our entry-level figure is 5,000 dollars per month. That buys you five websites and line-by-line review of all your code, checking for security and performance issues. We accept that we are not a mass-market product. Our client list is very limited. We are a high-end service.”

What kind of customer is your typical customer?

“Our client list breaks into two parts.

a) High-traffic websites. Big publishers, broadcasters, web magazines like TechCrunch. We offer them flat-rate hosting, which gives them predictability. But they do see value also in our premium platform, and services.

b) Customers that value our secure and stable environment, like security companies or Facebook. For example, Facebook uses us for selected campaign sites because they trust our security services. They don’t have to worry. Same thing with security companies. Security companies want the guarantee that they don’t have to worry about getting embarrassed.”

What kind of differences you see between the US and Europe regarding your clients?

“There are not as many websites in Europe that touch those high-traffic levels. That is because Europe is very fragmented. We are not a single market. Demand for high-traffic hosting is not the same.”

How about agencies, do you see differences between the US and Europe?

“I think Europe is little bit behind US, maybe 12 months or so. I’m referring to scale of operation with this. There are bigger WordPress agencies in US.
And the size of agency tells you something about its internal processes.

We all seem to follow a very similar evolution path. You start as an individual developer, then you hire the first person, then you are a team of three, four and five. Then you break into separate teams. Then you start getting into your fifteens and twenties, and you begin hiring people who don’t work with WordPress, and maybe don’t know it at all. Then you start to become a grown-up, proper business. At that point, how you are seen by those larger clients starts to change.

Usually if a company has reached that 15-20 employees point, and if they are still doing OK, that says something.”

What do you evaluate when you look for new VIP partner agencies?

“One of the key things is size. A three-person team could be technically capable, but if one of them gets sick, you’ve just taken 33% out of the company. Larger enterprise clients don’t want to see that. They want to see reassurance that there won’t be any disaster. I understand that.

We also want to see an agency that is comfortable working with those big brand names, like national-level newspapers. A lot of the VIP business comes from big publishers and the agency has to be comfortable working with those kind of clients.

We also want to see that they engage with the WordPress community. That is not because we want their input to WordPress, but we think that it demonstrates an understanding about what WordPress is. We want to hear that the people in the agency have spoken at a local WordCamp. We want to hear that they have organized a local meetup. We want to hear about the plugins that you have in the .org repository. We want to hear about the tickets that you got for core. Those are indications that you are our kind of people.

The current roster of agencies in the VIP program, they all tick those same boxes. And we think that those agencies are good role models to follow. We would like people to look at 10ups and Alley Interactives and see that they got to where they are by doing this—maybe we should too.”

What is missing in European agencies?

“The first thing that is missing, is people talking about all this. I would like to see more evidence of people declaring their expertise, talking about the projects they’ve done. I find that a lot of agencies do a lot of these things, but then they don’t talk about it, they don’t make it known.

I hate finding out that a popular website is running on WordPress, because I should have been told that already. If you’ve got a great client, you’ve put them on WordPress, shout about it, tell the world. It gives us all case studies we can quote.

Clients are risk-averse, they don’t want to embrace this new WordPress thing until they know someone else has done the same. It is easy to sell the second newspaper after the first one. It is easy to sell the second government after the first one.

I think it is not the agencies being lazy about these things. I think they are just shy. Particularly in Europe, we don’t have this tradition of pointing to ourselves.

We have a strong community here in Europe. We have success stories to tell. We have European core contributors, we have release leads. Many popular plug-ins come from Europe. Look at Yoast. We have things to be proud of.”

Do you think agencies should invest more time in making successful plugins, to reach something like Yoast?

“Whenever I ran my own agency (Code For The People), I chose which one I wanted to be, and then I focused on it. I think there are two very different kinds of approaches and mentalities involved. If you are an agency you are designing a new project every month or two. Certain people thrive on that rapid turnover. If you are building a product, you might do one major release a year. Different people are good at that.”

Any other, final message to European agencies?

“One thing that we have in huge quantities is passion, and belief in this. There are a lot of markets and countries in Europe where the open source is a very strong belief. The energy and the passion we can bring from that is just as useful a contribution as anything else.

I can think of things like Top Gear. I don’t care about cars, I have no interest in cars, but I watch that show because the presenters have so much passion for what they are doing. Passion is infectious. Passion is interesting.

I would love to see more people prepared to share that passion, getting past that shyness and saying “I really care about that.” That would also promote them as individuals. People want to buy into passionate teams and passionate agencies.”

Thank you, Simon, for the interview. One can only hope that more agencies come out of the shadows to showcase their experience and passion.

[Edit 3/7/2015: Article previously said that Forbes.com is also hosted on VIP platform. That is not the case. Mention of that has been removed.]

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