It’s not a failure, it’s a learning experience

Before I did this here WordPress thing, I did other things. I tend to forget a lot of them, mostly because the biggest job I did over the past twenty years was raise my children. Everything else was squeezed in around that, and that particular job still isn’t finished. There’s a common thread around the things Ron and I did, both for work and for living, and that was if it didn’t quite work out the way we planned, we’d just try something different.

Oddly enough, that works for parenting too. It’s also a core philosophy behind WordPress development, so maybe that’s why we like. Just wait, things will change. 😉

Back in the beginning, at the start of my adult life – or at least only a few pages into that chapter – I was a *lot* more impulsive, and my husband maybe a bit more indulgent. This is the story of when I owned a craft store – why I started it, how I ran it, and why I stopped.

We lived out in the country, off a secondary highway. It was a road people did not use to get somewhere else, just whatever was out that way. Not quite the middle of nowhere, but you could get there from here. And as these places normally, go there was a whole passel of women looking for things to do, so there was a healthy craft community. One day, a few of us were talking and I had received a mail order catalog from a supplier out in Alberta. Alberta doesn’t have sales tax, so the prices were basically wholesale. Most of the other women were not interested in ordering anything, even though the prices were really good, becasue the shipping would be high for each order. “Well, let’s go in on an order together,” I said. They were all fine with that as long as I was the one who handled it.

Of course, after that I got the idea to put in an order for more that what people asked for and thing I thought they might need. When I sold off some of those items, I used the money to pick out more items. This worked really well at the time because many of my neighbors were familiar with home parties (like for Tupperware), knew how it worked, and liked buying stuff they needed – especially if they could just pop down to my place and get it.

Eventually, the corner of the room got bigger, I found more suppliers, and since my house was also not finished, I got Ron to build me a room on the lower level, with a door to the outside. When that got bigger – it didn’t take long – we decided to use half of the lower level for a proper “shop”. We had also formed a company for the consultation Ron was doing, so we made Rennick Craft Supplies a subsidiary of it. Funds to do major things like building a room were company paid for. We hired Ron’s brother to do the actual build because Ron was often away working. The old one-room shop then became Ron’s office.

All of this without a business plan and without a bank loan. I either used money from sales to buy new inventory (my main cost) or got some from The Bank of Ron – I mean, an investment from the parent company.For example, we went to a craft trade show in Calgary, but Ron’s company foot the bill for the entire trip.

At some point I got the bright idea to have a site on the internet. See the wayback machine archive for it here, as it is no longer online. I never did quite get to the point of using e-commerce software, as literally the only free software available for it was Mal’s E-commerce. I didn’t even have my own domain name as this was the mid-nineties and they were still around $70. I had to figure out how to navigate the newly birthed web, and how to build a site – all in HTML!

Also, I had no idea what I was doing.

No, really. I just jumped in then figured out what to do as best I could, or even as good enough as possible. I wrote a catalog and made copies at Staples, mailing them out myself.

I stumbled along, trying to broaden the business while dealing with flaky customers, a sagging craft industry (it goes in cycles) and my money tied up in inventory. I often had to order 12 of an item, even if the customer only wanted 2.

During this time, we also started homeschooling. So in between listening for a car in the driveway, making supper, doing laundry, and doing spelling drills, I often had the kids help me with packing up orders, greeting customers, and drilling them on times tables as we repackaged beads. I planned & taught classes to bring in people on a regular basis, but as the decade neared to a close, the downturn in crafting (scrapbooking was just becoming huge), the lack of funds and an unfinished house, plus a new Wal-Mart in town made it really easy to stop when we had our fourth (and last) child. Her arriving on the scene, as well as my grandmother passing, made things painfully obvious.

I sat down, ran over my finances for a full five years and determined this: for all my efforts, I had grossed an average of $400 a month. Not counting each July & August, when we closed for the summer and there was very little business anyway. That’s gross, not net. Any net was more inventory. Certainly not a good return for the amount of time I put into it.

When we decided to close, it was as if a huge weight had lifted. This was a big hint. I sold off what I could, and the rest I took with me when we all moved to a new city, selling our old house to the brother that had worked on it. I held a massive yard sale there, selling off most of the remaining supplies I didn’t want to keep for the kids or myself. I still have some of the supplies kicking around – a ten pound bag of hot glue sticks lasts a long long time. 😉

So what did I learn with the thousands invested in mostly inventory? Oh, a LOT. While more expensive than the community college course in computer programming I took for a year, it was less than a business degree from a university and probably more useful.

  • While I did take an accounting course, I learned a I really *really* hate accounting. And one needs to stay on top of the paperwork and have a proper filing system, that one actually uses.
  • Sometimes you have to round up.
  • You really do have to spend money to make money. The trick is what to spend it on.
  • You really need to know your industry inside out.
  • Networking is more handy than you think
  • Your instincts are probably right. If it looks like things are taking a downturn or something isn’t working: change. Don’t wait and see.
  • Throwing more money at some things is not worth it.
  • Treating customers as people, paying attention to them, and remembering them goes further than advertising.
  • Doing too many things at once dilutes your message.
  • Automate whatever you can, ask questions when you don’t know.
  • “I don’t know, let me check,” is an acceptable answer.
  • Some people will not do business with you for reasons that will never make sense. Don’t waste time chasing after them.
  • If your heart’s not in it, it’s time to pack up.

I’ve seen people older than I am who have not learned some of these lessons, so overall I feel grateful that they took only ten years or less to learn. Many of the lessons listed above I use in the work I do now. Sometimes when I am sorting through a box of old papers, I find some receipts or flyers relating to the craft store and I feel a little sad it didn’t work out. Then I realize that while it may not have worked out the way I expected, it gave me experience and confidence to move on to something bigger and better.

Right there is one of the biggest lessons we passed on to our kids – you can pick a job or career, but you don’t have to be “stuck” with it when it’s just not for you any more.

How we built

It’s been a few months since we started and we both thought people would be interested in knowing how exactly we built the site, and the functionality in operating the site on a day to day basis. You know, with real users. 😉

The most shocking part of this is also the most basic: it is a single stand-alone WordPress install. We did not use multisite and domain map it, nor did we make it a third network on our exisiting installation. This is one of those times where we truly wanted it completely separate from all of our other websites. It even has its own cPanel account. 😛

For the support framework, we installed BuddyPress. Yep, we did.

The theme we started with was Enterprise from StudioPress, so we use our own GenesisConnect plugin to add the required BuddyPress support to the Genesis theme framework. We also added a couple extra plugins to help with day to day tasks: BuddyPress Group Email Subscription and BP Group Management, both by Boone Gorges. The Group Email subscription sends us an email anytime a user posts in any of our groups, so we can respond as soon as possible. Group Management has those missing pieces such as allowing me to add specific members to Groups without them requesting an invite. And finally, we developed Private Group Downloads (coming soon to wpebooks) to provide plugin and ebook updates to customers in the support areas.

Some extra plugins, just for special touches:
Genesis Simple Sidebars – we added support for this in GenesisConnect, so there are certain sidebars only visible to logged in users when visiting BuddyPress areas.
Download Manager – to keep track of free ebook downloads
Secure Contact form – I needed something simple & this fits the bill.

The biggest part of the functionality of the entire site is also the simplest: we sell the ebooks & bundled plugins via e-junkie. No ecommerce plugins to handle on our end, and at $10 a month for up to 20 products, it is money well spent. They track everything for us and there are no headaches.

The only manual work involved is when a user requests an invite for the support group they wish to join. Some request access to all groups, not just for the ebook they purchased. There could be a way to do this automatically, especially if the ecommerce part was handled within WordPress, but for now this is how we do it. Some users sign up with a different email address than the one they used for purchase, so I still have to hunt down them manually anyway. I realize this part is not scalable. 😉

Overall, I think the experience is a success on both sides of the screen. Some users have had issues with the BuddyPress UI, but I think this is only because of the non-forum-like presentation with BuddyPress itself. Others users have been pleasantly surprised to find out it is BuddyPress-driven.

If we had to build the site over again I’m not sure how much, if any, we would change. I might lean towards trying out something like eshop, just to see if I could keep the entire thing WordPress-based, and we also discussed having the products as custom post types instead of pages. But these are lesser issues than the main point – supporting the user in a private enviroment.

Secure Download for BuddyPress

Andrea & I are using BuddyPress and private groups for the support area of WP eBooks. All of our plugin eBooks include lifetime updates so in planning WP eBooks, we knew we needed a plugin/utility for providing our group members with updates. Until recently, we haven’t needed to provide updates on any of the plugins. A few weeks ago, I did a first pass on a secure download manager for BuddyPress that runs inside the BP Groups component.

From the user side the plugin is fully functional, but there are a few bugs in the group admin side that need to be fixed before I can label the plugin as a beta. The files uploaded through the plugin are stored outside the website and are only accessible through the download area of the group that it is associated with. This plugin will be our next release on WP eBooks. Here is a screenshot of the group member’s download area (click for full size):

A new ebook

Late last week I released another ebook called Aggregating Global content across a WordPress Network. Or something like that.

I’d actually started writing this one a long time ago – easily a year. It’s not that it was particularly difficult, just small things cropping up here and there which meant rewriting sections, taking new screenshots, finding alternate plugins, and of course changing everything that said WPMU into just WordPress.

So, everything in this ebook is about setting up a homepage for the entire network, with some extra section on crafting a new signup page, making a huge tags cloud like, getting post thumbnails to work in sitewide tags, and a few other small things, all tied up in one handy package.

WordPress merit badges

Sometimes I come up with silly ideas and then run with it. Today was one of those days. Someone said something, this lead to more, and my brain blurted out that it would be really neat if their were WordPress achievement badges, like you get in Girl Guides & Cub Scouts.

And then I cracked open my sketchbook because I am old school like that and prefer an actual writing implement to draw with. Here’s the ones I came up with, and their descriptions. How many have you earned? 😉

WordPress logo – earned by successfully installing WordPress manually, under 5 minutes.

Mu – for installing WordPress MU, or multisite (networks).

X – for editing the Codex usefully.

puzzle piece – for writing a plugin and hosting it in the repo

Screenshot – for creating a theme

Tent – for organizing a WordCamp

BP – anything Buddypress. 😀 Using it, writing for it…

Paw print – for working in trac, submitting tickets, and patches

Matt – the “I met Matt!” badge. Must include photo for verification.

SQL Diver – for diving into the database

Troll – the anti-matt troll badge. Given in rare cases, limited amounts. (actually, this is the only DE-merit)

Server – the server management badge.

Not shown:
the badge for bringing a friend over from Blogger to WordPress
being a Wordcamp attendee or speaker (airplane!)
being on WordPress TV
the GPL badge. Icon of grape kool-aid. (’nuff said)
a $ badge if you’re a WP freelancer earning a living

What other ones could there be?

Disclaimer: I just came up with the idea as a joke, because it’s funny. Tho the positive ones would be awesome if they really did exist. Alas, while my sewing skills are good, this would involve embroidery. 😉

If anyone decides to crack open Illustrator and make ones for blog sidebars, I would LOVE to see them! 😀

More suggestions:
– tshirt collector. Can you go a week wearing nothing but WordPress shirts?
– easy one for the noobs, 100 posts.
– book author
– dog food 😉
– dev chat participant

Simple Menus

Andrea & I have been working with the Genesis Theme Framework since it was in alpha. In fact, the theme on this site is Genesis and a customized version of Delicious. To date, I have mostly been working on GenesisBuddy (BuddyPress support for Genesis & Genesis child themes).

Over the summer, the folks at StudioPress have been releasing plugins to extend the functionality of Genesis. A couple weeks ago we were having coffee with Rebecca and she mentioned that another handy plugin for Genesis would be a menu plugin like Genesis Simple Sidebars. Since I agreed that would be a handy plugin, I wrote one that would do just that.

Without further ado, we are please to announce the release of Genesis Simple Menus. Appropriately, Simple Menus’s home page will be at StudioPress among the other Genesis plugins.