In Episode 22, Topher and I discuss building HeroPress, sticking with a project when it’s important enough, and giving a voice to people in the community who don’t always feel like they have one.
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And now on with the show.
Hey, everybody. Welcome to another episode of How I Built It, the podcast that asks “How did you build that?” Today, my guest is Topher DeRosia from HeroPress. Topher, I never ask people if I say their name correctly, but I said your name correctly, I hope?
Topher DeRosia: You nailed it. And it’s unusual. Most people get a bit wrong.
Joe Casabona: Nice. What’s the weirdest one that you’ve gone?
Topher DeRosia: Oh man. I mean, other than just crazy, ridiculous. I get a lot of DeRosia, DeRasia, DeRosiya.
Joe Casabona: Gotcha. Nice. I, you know, you would like, I have a pretty phonetic name myself, Casabona. But I get a lot of Casa Barna and stuff like that, Casabone, so I understand. Cool.
Well, welcome to the show. Thank you for joining me.
Topher DeRosia: Yeah, no problem. Thanks for having me.
Joe Casabona: Yeah. So, we’re just gonna jump right into it. Why don’t you tell us a little bit about who you are and the idea behind HeroPress?
Topher DeRosia: All right. I am a pretty average guy from Michigan, married, two kids, two dogs, and a little house. I’ve been a web developer for more than 20 years now and got into WordPress in 2010. And realized that it solved many, many of the problems that I had been trying to solve over the previous 15 years. So I jumped in with both feet and I haven’t really developed with anything else since.
And you asked about HeroPress. That’s a very long story. But, one day I got up out of bed and I checked my email and my boss said, “You’re not going to work on the work you’ve been doing for the last year and a half. I want you to do something special for WordPress.” But he didn’t tell me what it was. He just said that. So I wrote back and I said, “What kind of thing are you thinking?” And he said, “That’s your journey to discover.” Yeah. So I had to figure it out.
And there were some stipulations. If I did this, it would have to be all in. I couldn’t go back to my old job. It was a hundred percent or nothing. And, it needed to be financially profitable within three months. And what else? There were a couple of other things that don’t really matter now, but I thought long and hard and he made available to me a WordPress development company in India and said, “If you need to build something, use these guys. I’ve bought their time.”
And I got to know one of the guys there pretty well. And one evening, he kind of got frustrated and ranted a bit about how hard it was for his agency to get good contracts. And he asked me for business advice. And I am not awesome at business and I’m not from India so I don’t know about business in India. So I thought I would try and find somebody in India who has succeeded where he was failing. And that got me connected with the organizers from WordCamp Poona. and they had great advice for him. And I thought, “Hey, this is awesome.” I need to connect people who, you know, one person has a need and the other one has a solution.
So I was going to do videos like Ted or TEDx, and we did a Kickstarter. We were looking for 60,000 Australian dollars, which is about 40 US dollars, and what we were more than money, we were looking for validation. So we wanted $60,001 donations.
Joe Casabona: Right. So you kind of want to know if a lot of people would be into this?
Topher DeRosia: Right. Exactly. And what actually happened is that four organizations gave about 5,000 each. So I ended up with just over 20 and that was the end of it. And that I mean, that was the end of HeroPress. And I got a flood of emails from people saying, “Please don’t let this die. This is such a great idea. You got to do something.” So I was thinking, you know, what can I do? And it occurred to me that if I switched to text, then it would be far more consumable by people with low bandwidth, which was kind of my target audience. It would be infinitely cheaper than sending a videographer to people’s houses around the world. And I could just do it.
So I asked permission from Dave, the guy that actually owns the HeroPress. And I said, “You know, can I do this?” And he didn’t write back. And he was off on a business trip doing something. So I just did it. And a couple of months later, he wrote to me and said, “Hey, I like what you’re doing there, and keep it up” which was a nice relief.
But, so I published the first one and thought, “Oh no! I need to do another one.” So I rushed around finding somebody for the next week and for like the first five or six, I did that every week. I was like, “Oh no! I have to get another person.” Which is a terrible way to run a curated blog like that. But, it worked and it seems to be popular, so we’re still doing it.
Joe Casabona: That’s awesome. So, HeroPress is, I guess, like the elevator pitch, right. It’s for people in the WordPress community that…how would you put it? Have the short version up, Right? And it says people who feel marginalized as a result of culture, language, gender.
Topher DeRosia: Yeah. I wanted input from people different from me.
Joe Casabona: Gotcha.
Topher DeRosia: I mean, everybody I know in the WordPress community personally, well, everybody I knew at the time I met at WordCamp and they were all Americans, they were all, you know, American rich, they were all generally the same. You know, they live in a city or the country. I mean, I know the country but it’s American and it’s even similar in Europe and Australia and things like that. I mean, the lifestyle is very similar. I wanted something really different. I wanted to hear from people everywhere.
Back in the seventies, there was a TV show called Big Blue Marble and it was for kids. And every week they showcase culture and it was about the kids and said, you know, what do kids eat there? What do kids play there? What’s it like for school there? And then at the end, there was a pitch for pen pals. And you could write to this place and sign up and they would hook you up with a kid somewhere else in the world. And there are people to this day that write to their pen pals that they got from Big Blue Marble. And I sort of wanted it to be like that. I just want to talk to people and say, what’s it like where you live? How do you do business? How do you get paid? Do you get paid? Is your currency such that you get a hundred thousand whatever’s for an hour of work? You know, that kind of thing definitely.
Joe Casabona: Yeah, that’s awesome. I mean, it’s, you know, people kind of like to live in their own bubble or echo chamber. And it seems like, you know, much like Big Blue Marble HeroPresses showing us what’s outside of our bubble within the WordPress community.
Topher DeRosia: Yeah, it really is.
Joe Casabona: Oh, that’s fantastic.
Topher DeRosia: Yeah. And a lot of the people that I talked to felt like they’re not part of the WordPress community. They can’t go to WordCamps, sometimes their English isn’t awesome. So they don’t feel comfortable on Slack and in forums and stuff like that. And they just don’t feel connected at all. And I’m really hoping that this changes that because it’s kind of on us to reach out. To say, “You know what? You’re cool. I don’t care if you’re, I don’t care what your English is. Like, I don’t care how far away you live. I want to have a conversation with you and I will sit and take the time to listen to you because you have valuable stuff to say.”
Joe Casabona: Yeah, absolutely. That’s fantastic. So now HeroPress is a blog. How long has it been going for?
Topher DeRosia: I think I published the first one in March of 20…let’s see, this is 16. So it would be 14.
Joe Casabona: Okay. Cool. So it’s about two, almost three years old. It was going to be a video and then you switched to text-based. So, aside from the Kickstarter, or maybe kind of, maybe in conjunction with the Kickstarter, I would love to hear what kind of research you did for setting it up kind of the steps you took after once you, maybe once you got your bearings and realize I need to line up more than one guest per week, right? Maybe we could talk a little bit about that.
Topher DeRosia: I did precious little research. That’s why I laughed. I don’t know that I could have done more at the time cause I didn’t know what to research. I mean, I know now I look back, I say, “Oh, I should have looked at that. I should have looked at this other thing” but I didn’t. I just threw it out there, you know, throw it out the wall and see if it sticks. There were two parts to the questions. What was the other one?
Joe Casabona: It was revolving around a kind of Kickstarter. And then, the necessary steps you took to set up Kickstarter and then post Kickstarter. Cause we don’t talk about crowdfunding really.
Topher DeRosia: Yup.
Joe Casabona: So I’d love to hear more about it.
Topher DeRosia: That’s something else. I did precious little research on…The big surprise for me was that once you submit to Kickstarter, they get four to six weeks to think about whether or not you’re allowed to do this Kickstarter.
Joe Casabona: Wow!
Topher DeRosia: Yeah. So we were like, “All right. The site’s up. The site’s ready. Let’s go live. Submit to Kickstarter. We’re live. No, we’re not. We got six weeks.”
Joe Casabona: Oh my gosh!
Topher DeRosia: And that sucked because we were ready, you know, and the clock was ticking. I mean, I had only so many months before it needed to be done. And Dave said, you know, “When do we pull the trigger?” I mean, if we run out if we were not startup cash before the Kickstarter even goes, what do we do? And so I pitched to him going to PressNomics. And I was crossing my fingers that our Kickstarter would be live by that time when I got there. And it went live the morning of the first day.
Joe Casabona: Wow!
Topher DeRosia: And it was perfect. So I want to back up a little bit because that’s, I mean, that’s the great part of the story. But the research and stuff, we chose Kickstarter instead of 16:36.22. because at the time, it was just a little more famous. People were a little more comfortable with it. It’s like why people use PayPal instead of Stripe. You know, it’s just, everybody knows it. So that’s why we picked Kickstarter. One of the drawbacks to Kickstarter, as opposed to GoFundMe, is that if you don’t get your goal, you don’t get anything. With GoFundMe, you get the money as it comes in so every week you get a little check.
Joe Casabona: Interesting. That’s really interesting.
Topher DeRosia: Yeah. So even, I mean, even with Kickstarter, it was do or die. If we didn’t get it, we got nothing. So that’s why we chose Kickstarter. And then they have a really good process for getting set up. There’s a step-by-step thing. They say you really need to have a video or nobody’s going to give. Here’s how you make a good video. And it’s not just technologically. It’s how to speak and all that stuff. They were really useful there.
Then, we got everything set up and we submitted it. And I could have known if I had read every line of their documentation. I would have known that there was that time there, but I didn’t.
Topher DeRosia: So you would think they would have that in like big block letters? Like, they’re going through the ‘How to make a video. This is what you need.” You would think like once you do all this, it’s going to be like a month?
Topher DeRosia: Yeah. So we submitted and then let’s see. There was something cool that happened after what was it? Oh, that’s the other thing you can’t resubmit to Kickstarter. You can’t run it a second time.
Joe Casabona: Gotcha. So in KickStarter’s eyes, you fail your…
Topher DeRosia: You lost. You can’t do something else. You can run another Kickstarter for another thing, but this thing failed, move on.
Joe Casabona: It seems like probably the lead time, right. The four to six weeks is because they have a person manually review this.
Topher DeRosia: Oh yeah. Yep. Somebody is looking and, you know, they want to make sure it’s legit, that it’s not a scam and all that kind of stuff.
And, oh, I remember that other thing I was going to say, I emailed them and explained that I was under a tight deadline and they turned it around in three weeks.
Joe Casabona: Oh, wow!
Topher DeRosia: So, I mean, for all I know everybody was getting that and four to six was covering theirs. But, I don’t know. There’s no way to know, but I asked and I got it in three weeks.
Joe Casabona: That’s awesome. Yeah. Wow. That’s so awesome. So you said that in that short story, that going live the day of PressNomics was an interesting part of the story. Yeah. The next question I usually ask is, you know, like, do you, or did you talk to anyone for business advice? And I mean, PressNomics is like a business WordPress conference. So I’d love to hear that story.
Topher DeRosia: Sure. You know, I didn’t get at PressNomics because the thing was there and it was ready to go. I was pitching it at that point but I did go to a WordCamp in Florida. It was not Miami. It was probably Orlando. And I hunted people down and looked him in the eye and asked them. This was before I knew what I was doing. This is before I knew, even before the video idea, we were talking about doing a code school or a job board, or just all kinds of stuff.
So I talked to Norcross, I talked to Karim Gee, I talked to Sam Seidler and just anybody I could get a hold of and said, “What does WordPress need?” What could we do? What could be helpful?” And I got some good answers that have not been acted on by anyone yet. Well, it could still be a viable thing,
Joe Casabona: When we’re not recording, we can talk about those things. [laughing background]
Topher DeRosia: Awesome.
Joe Casabona: That’s really cool.
Topher DeRosia: Yeah. And people were really helpful. I mean, everybody was like, “Oh dude, that’s awesome. You’re in a great position. Here’s some ideas.”
Joe Casabona: Nice. So you heard a bunch of ideas and then you picked. So did you pick HeroPress based on what you were told at these conferences? Or was it just kind of like a brainchild of you and Dave, was it?
Topher DeRosia: Yeah. David. It was mostly us. Okay. There were some ideas like I kind of came up with the idea after talking to GTE in India about connecting people that really resonated with Dave and, you know, and there’s something else, a little bit of this story in the back.
When we really started, like at the very beginning, the first day, Dave sent me a photo of a little kid getting a bath, a shower kind of in an alley in India. It’s a narrow little alley with a little runner of water down the middle. And, you know, houses lining on either side and his mom was dumping water over his head. And he said, “I want to help that kid. When that kid grows up, I want him to have a job in WordPress. I want things to be more available for that kid.” So that’s a little bit of where the whole connecting people on the fringe came from.
Joe Casabona: Yeah. That’s fantastic. I mean, this is such a great and unique idea. Now, it’s primarily a blog, right? And you have different contributors. So when we talk about, you know, the title question, how did you build it? I know like, you know, pre-going live, you mentioned a pretty interesting piece of code. So we can talk about that. And then I’d love to hear like, kind of how you built the community, if you have sponsors, if the site is making a, you know, enough money to kinda be worth your time, and the costs of running a site. So maybe we could start with the technical stuff and then move towards the business aspect of it.
Topher DeRosia: Yeah. Initially, like when we were doing the Kickstarter, we wanted just the bare-bones MVP and so I took underscores. It gave it a white background, put our logo on it, and put a form on it that said, “Sign up for our, you know, our super-secret project. And you’ll learn more later.” People signed up. They did that. And then when we went live again, we still didn’t know if we were going to go very far so we didn’t want to spend a lot of money.
So I used a theme called Make from The Theme Foundry. And I think that was the first time I used it. And it gave a very nice-looking site with minimal effort. And I said, “Awesome. Let’s, let’s run with that.” And that is the same theme that is running today. It is almost untouched.
Joe Casabona: That’s awesome.
Topher DeRosia: Theme-wise, once we started doing contributors, I created a custom post type for contributors instead of making them users for a variety of reasons.
One of which was a lot of the plugins that I wanted to use applied to content as opposed to users. So I wanted a map associated with each contributor. And the plugin I used associates them with posts, but not users. And there was a whole bunch of other stuff like that. But for a long time, they didn’t have users like, I didn’t have users at all. But since then, I’ve started creating users for the contributors so that they can log in and edit their own stuff. But they’re just logging accounts. There’s nothing special.
Joe Casabona: Gotcha. That’s really, really interesting. So a quick aside, what is your area of expertise? Is it design? Are you a programmer or…
Topher DeRosia: I’m a backend of WordPress developers. So I used to really love CSS. I looked away for a couple of months and when I came back, it was completely different.
Joe Casabona: Yeah, totally different. I mean the front-end development in general.
Topher DeRosia: Yeah. And at the same time, while it was changing to be something completely different, I got a job where there were front-end developers who were awesome and available to me. And I said, “Guys, just go do your thing.”
Joe Casabona: Nice. Nice.
Topher DeRosia: So being a backend developer, it makes it really easy to do things like creating a custom post type and throw a bunch of content in it. The maps plugin I use has a great backend, but I didn’t like the front end, so I rewrote my own. So if you go to the website now and click on the map link, you’ll see the custom map that I made.
Joe Casabona: Nice.
Topher DeRosia: Yeah. So the theme itself is very, very simple. I’ve done almost nothing to it but the content, I’ve done a fair amount of Hack and slash.
Joe Casabona: Cool. Very cool. So that’s the technical side. What about the business side of things? You know, how did you go about getting contributors? Do you reach out to them? Do they reach out to you? Do you have sponsors and, you know, is the site profitable? things like that.
Topher DeRosia: Yeah, let’s talk about contributors first. I have a form on the site where people can sign up to be a contributor. And I would say, right now I have 84 contributors listed on the site and I would say fewer than 10 of them approached me. And there’s only been one person ever that I did not accept. So by far, I track people down far more than anything else. And early on, it was people I knew. I mean, even in, I did know people outside of the US. I knew the guys in India and rushed, I knew, “All right. Ask for some advice.” I said, you know, who else would you recommend? And so I got some good names. And these days, it’s more very serendipitous. It’s just, I see somebody who looks like they might be interesting. I say, “Hey, what’s your story?” And 20 minutes later, I know everything about them and it’s wonderful.
Joe Casabona: Nice.
Topher DeRosia: And we go for it. I met a woman at WordCamp US whom I had met before. But I just knew her name and that was it. And I said, “Have you ever heard of HeroPress? she said “Nope”. I gave her a little pitch and she said, “huh, I might have a story for you. I was a single mom living in New York and I didn’t have a job at all. And I learned WordPress in it. It lets me raise my kids at home and have a good living for them.” I was like, “Oh right. Here you go. Story number one.”
Joe Casabona: Man, that’s amazing.
Topher DeRosia: Yeah. So I usually approach people and almost always, I would, you know, there’s only been two people ever who’ve said, I think my, I don’t think my story’s right. And I’ve agreed with them.
Joe Casabona: Gotcha.
Topher DeRosia: Everybody’s got a story. Everybody is fascinating.
Joe Casabona: Yeah. That’s really cool.
Topher DeRosia: Yeah. So then you want to talk about sponsorship and stuff like that. Because I started out just doing it on my own. There was no money involved inherently and it stayed that way for a really long time. I think the first time anybody tried to give me any money at all was right before WordCamp Europe this summer. Somebody said, “Hey, where’s the donation form on your site? I need to give you money.” And I said, “Well, there isn’t one. And I don’t really have a mechanism for taking money. He said, “Do you have PayPal? I said, “I do. But I don’t like it if you gave me money. I can’t say I would use it for this thing for HeroPress.” He’s like, “I don’t care. I just want to give you money.” And so he just gave me money and I actually used it to help get my wife to go to WordCamp Europe for HeroPress, which was nice. But for a long time, I didn’t want money. I didn’t want to accept money for it because I didn’t want to be making money off of these people’s stories. And it’s a very tricky thing. I still, I do have some sponsorship now, and I still am a little concerned about making money off other people’s stories.
A few months ago, XWP approached me and said, you know, we’d like to sponsor some for HeroPress. Officially, you know, not just here toll for years, a few bucks to go to WordCamp. And I really thought about it for a long time. And I asked a lot of people. I asked people who had been contributors, people who don’t have a lot of money and might resent me getting some, and universally, it was “Dude, take the money. HeroPress is awesome. You deserve every penny.” And so given that advice, I accepted.
So HeroPress sponsors one essay per month. And basically, to figure out how much, I just looked at the time I spent on it. And I looked at my freelance rates and I said, “Well if I were if I didn’t know if I were billing a client for this time, it would be this much. And they said, “All right. cool.” There it is.
And so now every month, I get a little in the mail, which is nice. It makes life a little more comfortable for my kids and stuff like that. It’s not enough, certainly not enough to live on. It’s not enough to seriously enable a large new thing of HeroPress. But if I could manage to get the other three per month sponsored, I would probably never again need to ask, do a GoFundMe to go to India or Kathmandu or anywhere which would be nice. I did a GoFundMe to get to India last summer, and that was fantastic. It was an honor to be sponsored, supported by the community. But I don’t want to ask the community for money every time I want to do something. And so the sponsorship I have now is making life a little more comfortable, a little bit more would probably get rolled back into HeroPress. A lot more with, you know, WordCamps and new features. And basically, it would become like my side job and I would spend the same hours on it than I would with any other client.
And then I have some ideas for the future about where it can go and other things we can do.
Joe Casabona: Nice. That’s really cool. So we are, man we’re banging up against time already. So usually at the end of this, I like to ask two questions. What are your, what are some plans for the future for HeroPress? And do you have any trade secrets for us?
Topher DeRosia: You ask everybody those questions?
Joe Casabona: I do. I sure do. I love the trade secrets one because it always takes people by surprise and they always do the same thing, trade secrets, and then they already know some great piece of advice. So, all right, let’s roll with that one. Then, unless you have like any like really cool big plans for HeroPress
Topher DeRosia: Sort of. I’m going to do a podcast.
Joe Casabona: Nice.
Topher DeRosia: And it is going to be exactly this format. But I’m going to do it with people who fit the HeroPress template. People far away, people that eat food I’ve never had, and, you know, go places I’ve never been and use the money I can’t pronounce.
Joe Casabona: Yeah, that’s amazing. Because first of all, it fits HeroPress perfectly. But also I’ve been reading a few think pieces about how there’s lots of new podcasts in the WordPress space but not lots of new guests on those podcasts. And I’m totally guilty of that. You know, I’m trying to expand more outside of the WordPress community, but I’m going for the people I know. And you know. So that’s incredible. Let me know when it launches and I’ll be happy to promote it.
Topher DeRosia: Awesome. So I also need you to teach me how to do a podcast.
Joe Casabona: Totally. I will be happy to do that as well.
Topher DeRosia: All right. So, wisdom. The reason HeroPress works at all I believe is that I’m willing to look somebody in the eye and convey to them that I think they are important and worthwhile. And just listen. And people open up and they will tell you their life’s dreams, their goals, their troubles. They will tell you anything. And in my business, that’s perfect. That’s what I want for HeroPress. That’s perfect. But I mean, if you’re a business owner, talking to clients, give them respect and just listen. Say, “Tell me everything. Tell me your problems. You know, what’s your life’s pain, not just work. You know, what are you struggling with right now? What can we help you beat?” And they opened right up. And the next day, your friends and then friends do great things together.
Joe Casabona: Wow! That is…Well, there’s nothing to add to that. So Topher, I’m just going to thank you for your time.
Topher DeRosia: Yeah.
Joe Casabona: I’m going to thank everybody who’s listening. And until next week, get out there and build something. And make sure to listen. Until next time.
Thanks so much for listening and thanks to our great guests and fantastic sponsors. If you liked the show, please rate it and subscribe on iTunes in Google play or whatever your podcast app of choice is. If you have any questions, be sure to reach out at howibuilt.it.
And finally, until next week, get out there and build something.
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