Meet Lisa Sabin-Wilson, The Person Who Literally Wrote the Book on WordPress
This week I had the pleasure of interviewing Lisa Sabin-Wilson of E.Webscapes Design Studio. E.Webscapes is a blog design studio with a huge client base of over 1,000. She’s an experienced blog designer and author of the “WordPress for Dummies” book. In this interview Lisa offers some fantastic advice as well as some very interesting insights into how she got her start as a designer. Scroll down and learn more about Lisa and when you’re done, feel free to visit her website and to connect with her using the social network of your choosing.
Lisa, thanks so much for taking the time for this interview. Can you begin by explaining a little about your background? Where are you from? How did you get your start as a designer?
Thank you for the interest, Grant. I live in the frozen wastelands of Wisconsin and have lived here, almost, my whole life. I was born in Houston, Texas and we moved to Wisconsin when I was 9. My southern accent is almost completely gone – it only comes out when I’m really tired or have had a beer too many.
I got my start in design like a lot of designers did – by opening a graphics program and started tinkering around with it. Once I did that, I was hooked and the obsession just grew from MS Paint to Adobe products. I don’t have any formal training, so everything I do now is completely self taught. What started out as pure hobby has turned into a full-time profession for me – I feel very lucky in that regard.
I really started doing web design for myself. Then, as my skills improved a bit, friends would look at my own website and start asking “How do you do that? Can you do that on my site?” – so I did. During the years of 1996 – 2000, the bulk of the design work I did for free. From designing sites for friends and family to giving away premade HTML templates on my site. It wasn’t until 2000 that things started to get serious and I started charging a bit for my services here and there. 2004 is the year that I left my career to pursue self-employment in design…it’s almost 2009 and I’m still going strong with it.
From what I understand, you haven’t always made your living as a designer. Can you explain a little about how you made the switch from your pervious profession to what you do now?
You did your homework! Prior to this, I had a 12 year career in nursing. I worked as a Registered Nurse in the area of Home Hospice – that is, caring for terminally ill patients in their own homes and counseling families and loved ones on end of life issues.
Hospice is quite a stressful area to work in, quite honestly. I worked 40-60 hours a week, and those were hours I spent immersed in issues of death and dying. My patients ranged from newborns to the elderly, in age – and would visit my patient’s homes 2-3 times a week to provide medical care, pain management and treatment. I also functioned as a counselor for the patient and their families, helping them get through this very difficult time in their lives.
Understandably, I needed an outlet for my off hours. I needed a way to express myself, and to relieve some of the vast amounts of stress that my career caused. Don’t get me wrong – I truly did love my work in Hospice. I found it a great purpose in life, and very fulfilling…but that fulfillment was also accompanied by a large amount of stress and grief. Hospice has the greatest rate of burn out for nurses than any other specialty area – that I lasted as long as I did was a gift.
Design became my outlet – creatively and emotionally. It was something that was unrelated to the work I did during the day, and it allowed me the kind of creative outlet that I really needed at the end of a day to de-stress and regroup myself for the next day.
My design work gradually grew through years of effort. In 2004, the requests for my design work had gotten to the point where I could leave my nursing career, if I wanted to. I was faced with a decision in the Fall of that year – and I decided to take a leap and took the chance that the design career would be enough to make up for my current salary. When I placed my resignation at the Hospice, my boss told me that she expected to see me back in her office in less than 6 months time. It’s been almost 5 years and she hasn’t seen my face since the day I left.
Tell us a little about your company E.Webscapes. How did E.Webscapes get its start? What brought E.Webscapes into the world of blog design?
I started E.Webscapes in 1998. Back then, it was originally called “Elegant Webscapes” – and in 2003, I shortened the name down to what it is today – E.Webscapes.
As I mentioned earlier, it started out as a hobby. I basically grew my client base by doing everything for free. In the late ’90′s it was downloadable HTML templates that I placed on my site for download, for free. I also did custom work for free at that time.
In 2001 – blogging really started to receive a lot of attention. Back then, programs like Movable Type and Grey Matter were the platforms people started using. When my client base started asking me to custom design their Movable Type site – for me, it was either sink or swim. I realized that I needed to learn these programs if I was going to sustain in the design business. It seemed there was a shift away from static HTML sites to more dynamic sites created with emerging content management systems.
I switched from providing free, downloadable HTML templates, to providing free Movable Type and Grey Matter templates for people to use. From there, for every new platform that would emerge – I would learn it, and provide free themes for programs like WordPress, Expression Engine, Typepad and Blogspot.
People started using my free themes a lot – and eventually, that grew into several requests for custom work because people wanted something that was more individual to their tastes.
I started charging for my design work back in 2000. It was a bit of a shock to my existing client base – because everyone loves free stuff, right? Some of them never came back again, but a good amount of them stayed and were more than happy to pay me for my skills and talent. It’s those clients who really helped me build E.Webscapes to where it is today – and I still have several of them as current clients today.
You are a self-proclaimed “WordPress Evangelist” can you explain why you like WordPress so much more than other blogging platforms?
I design for all platforms, really. I do designs for Movable Type, Typepad, Blogspot, Expression Engine, Drupal, WordPress…you name it.
I’m a “WordPress Evangelist” because I love the platform and think that WordPress offers the absolute best community out there. The platform is so easy to use; it can help anyone, regardless of their level of skill, put a site up on the web and start publishing their content within a short period of time. The program has unlimited potential in terms of extending and building your site into what you want it to be. That is where the community comes into play. The development community surrounding WordPress is huge and full of extremely talented individuals who contribute to the WordPress project by way of plugins, scripts and themes that, literally, make your options on running a WordPress powered site, endless.
The WordPress project has a real grassroots type of support and feel to it, when you’re a user of the platform, you can’t help but feel part of a larger community. You don’t get that feeling with other platforms out there.
That, and the fact that through my work at E.Webscapes, I have seen, several times over, how the platform really helps people publish to the web easily, efficiently, and in a very cost effective way. People, who, otherwise, would spend thousands on a web master to update their sites for them, can now update their own content and manage their own website with relative ease. I’ve seen it over and over enough to believe that it’s the platform of choice for publishing to the web. WordPress makes it easier, in my opinion. The community makes it possible to extend and flex your site to have it do what you want it to do through the use of the thousands of plugins and themes that are available.
I really am passionate about WordPress. So much so that I’m volunteering and on the organizational team for the upcoming event WordCamp Chicago, which is an educational min-conference for the WordPress Community. The website is at: http://wordcampchicago.com and it’s being held on June 6 & 7, 2009.
There are a lot of web design studios out there and blog design has become a huge trend lately. Why do you think that E.Webscapes has become so successful given the competition?
Back when I started focusing on providing blog design services, there weren’t that many of us out there. It’s been interesting to see the new studios pop up here and there around the web as the years went by – and now, these days, you can’t go anywhere on the web without seeing a blog design studio somewhere. Blog design is a service in great demand because blogs and web sites are an extension of the person behind it. Design is a wonderful way to express individuality.
It is my strong belief that there cannot be too many blog design studios out there. In my experience, there is so much work out there for designers that the industry can use more talented designers who can work with the various platforms out there. Almost every blog designer I know, including myself, is turning away new projects because they are busy with their current projects. There is plenty of work to be had out there, if you’re good at what you do.
I would say the biggest reason for E.Webscapes success is client retention. Over the years, I’ve built up a client portfolio of over 1000 clients – a large percentage of whom return to E.Webscapes when they need additional services. They tell a friend, who tells a friend, and so on. I rarely invest in advertising for E.Webscapes because the bulk of my business comes from returning clients and word of mouth. I think longevity in the industry also is a big plus for new and returning clients. Also, the fact that we not only specialize in WordPress, but also work with whatever platform the client wants to work with.
Being seen as a leader in the area of WordPress design doesn’t hurt my business at all, either. Having written the official WordPress For Dummies book, I do get a fair amount of referrals from the readership of that book. If any designers have the opportunity to write a book – it really does go a long way in establishing you as an expert in the field. I would say that my business has tripled since the book was published.
You offer a lot of design services, but you also offer hosting as well. Can you explain a little about your hosting company as well?
I started Blogs About Hosting – which is the hosting division of E.Webscapes – in 2003. In the beginning, I bought a dedicated, unmanaged server to run my own sites on. I was tired of unreliable and expensive hosting and figured that if I was going to do this right, I needed to do it myself.
Building Blogs About Hosting kind of grew from my client base at E.Webscapes. It’s growth was organic in nature. More and more clients who were coming to us also needed services like web hosting and domain registration. I quickly realized that I could really provide a ‘soup to nuts’ service where they could obtain no only web and blog design, but hosting and domain registration, too. I saw that clients were really appreciating having one ‘go to’ person for their website needs – rather than having several different accounts for this, that and the other.
Today, we have 6 servers online with over 1200 clients hosted on our servers. Clients are able to take advantage of our experience with blogs and different blog platforms, as we do help support them and trouble shoot different problems that may arise with the different platforms out there.
Most of my readers have probably heard of the “For Dummies” series of books. Can you explain a little about how you came to author the “WordPress for Dummies” book? Where can my readers purchase a copy?
The very first conference I ever attended for my business was the SXSW Interactive conference in Austin Texas. I was asked by a colleague of mine to speak at that conference, in 2006, on the topic of making a living as a blog designer. I accepted the speaking position and it was really exciting because it was the first time as a self-employed business owner that I was asked to step forward as an authority on the topic. To be recognized in such a way was both fantastically flattering and exciting.
It was at that conference in 2006 that I got into a conversation with someone about WordPress. In that conversation, I talked about how much I loved the program and the work that I’ve done by helping clients get up and running with their own, custom designed WordPress blog and/or web site. The person I was talking to is a published author who has written several “For Dummies” books on different topics – she told me that she was approached about writing a WordPress For Dummies book and asked if I would be interested in being a contributing author. I said I would.
That was in March 2006 and I didn’t hear anything more on it for several months. I figured that the idea either died in the corporate boardroom (as ideas often do), or she decided against the idea of having a contributing author.
In November 2006, I was contacted by the managing editor at Wiley Publishing. She told me that the woman I had spoken to at the SXSW Conference had given her my name and contact information as a potential lead author for the book project. Problem was, they needed to start on the book project immediately – - yesterday if possible! The original lady who asked me about the book eventually decided that she really didn’t have enough experience with the WordPress platform to write the book, and recommended me to her editor as someone who did.
In December 2006, I officially signed the contract with Wiley Publishing to write the book and it was published in November 2006. I have since written the 2nd Edition of WordPress For Dummies, which I just finished writing last week and it hits the shelves in early February 2009. Your readers can pick it up at their local bookstores – Barnes and Nobel, Borders, etc – - or they can order it online at Amazon.com.
Tell us a little about your work flow. How much time do you spend designing blogs? Do you get much time to work on personal or professional projects?
Personal projects? What is that?? I’m like the barefoot shoemaker – - making shoes for everyone else’s feet, but no time to make shoes for my own toes!
It’s really a rare thing that I’m able to really spend a concentrated amount of time on my own projects – that is something is an ongoing struggle for me. I don’t anticipate that struggle ending any time soon.
I currently work 40-70 hours a week on blog design projects. Everything ranging from full out design projects, to tweaking and technical support. E.Webscapes currently has a staff of 10 designers, so I also play project manager on projects that I’m not the lead designer on, myself. As well as all the administrative work that goes into running a business – I keep busy and stay off the streets.
My business has grown so much over the years that I wrestle with it all the time. I have to keep it at a level where I can manage it, and at the same time, I want to be able to grow the business so that it remains something that I can do on a full time basis. I started out as a single freelancer and now have an assistant and a staff of 10 associate designers and was just remarking to my husband the other day that I think I need an assistant for my assistant!
I really feel very fortunate for how well the business is doing, especially in the current economy. I’m grateful for the opportunity to stay working self-employed, doing what I love – working from home. But, I do find that I had more personal time when I was working for someone else – - there are pros and cons in each situation, I think.
Tell us a little about your workspace. Do you prefer a Mac or PC? Do you work with a tablet? Single or dual monitors?
I work on a PC in my home office. I use dual LCD monitors that I have on movable extender arms so I can position them in front of me as needed. One monitor is my design monitor and it always has various Adobe products up and running. The second monitor has whatever I need running on it. Often it has my email open. Other times, I’m playing movies or TV shows on it while I work….either episodes of House, M.D. or a favorite movie.
What are some of your favorite tools for creating blogs? Any WordPress plugins that you couldn’t live without?
I rely on my old standard program for coding and CSS development: Notepad. Once I have the site in early development stages, I absolutely adore using the Mozilla Firefox addon: Firebug. – it allows you to edit and debug CSS, HTML, JS – live on the page I’m working on. I couldn’t live without it, really.
As far as WordPress plugins I can’t live without? That’s a really hard one, because there are so many I couldn’t live with out. Some of my favorites are:
- All in One SEO Pack – assists with search engine optimization of your site
- FeedBurner FeedSmith – redirects all RSS feeds to your feedburner account where you can keep a complete accounting of your subscriber stats
- Google XML Sitemaps – creates an XML compliant sitemap that search engines will love you for
- Random Quotes – I use this on my personal blog to display some of my favorite quotes I find around. I’m a obsessive quote collector – as a matter of fact, one of my favorite quotes on my quotations page is: “The ability to quote is a serviceable substitute for wit. ~ W. Somerset Maugham”
- Subscribe To Comments – allows your readers to subscribe to individual posts so they can keep track of the discussions they’ve participated in
- Wordbook – automatically posts your blog updates to your Facebook account
Right this very minute – my favorite plugin is the Let It Snow! Plugin which I’m using to create a snowfall on my website during these cold, Wisconsin winter months!
Are there any web services that you cannot live without?
I definitely could not live without Freshbooks. I’ve been using it for a year to manage my invoicing and estimates for clients. It is a really easy and clean interface that really cuts the time involved in tracking payables. I used their paid service – and it’s worth every single penny I’ve spent on it…which isn’t much, really.
I know you said “aside from Google” – but I have to say that Google Calendar Sync is another told I could not live without. It syncs my Outlook Calendar with my Google Calendar, and vice versa. This is super helpful because I have an assistant who does much of my scheduling for interviews, consults, etc – - I’m able to give her access to my Google Calendar. She updates the Google Calendar, which then syncs with my Outlook – so my daily agenda is updated several times a day. It really helps me stay on task.
What would you consider your dream project?
A finished one. Haha! I kid – but you’re talking to someone who has several projects in various stages of completion at this time, and while they are great projects to be working on – I’m looking forward to finishing them up so I can move on to new ones.
My dream projects are always those projects that really stretch my abilities and talents to new heights. I always appreciate those projects that teach me new things and force me to learn a new way of doing old things, or just simply force me to learn a new skill. Every single one of my skills in design, CSS and development are completely self-taught. I’ve never had any kind of formal training at all – so, yea, I attended the school of hard knocks. I’m a curious sort and web design and development is a good way to channel that curiosity streak – - to really expand my skills and ability to perform new techniques is always something I strive for.
Which designers have influenced you the most? Are there any areas of design that you would like to experiment with?
It’s hard to say which designers influenced me the most – I find influence everywhere I go and the internet is a HUGE repository of creative inspiration. I guess I’d say I’m influenced by design on the web. But more than that, I’m influenced in design that I see everywhere, everyday – - in architecture, in magazines, in greeting cards – - my eye catches on all sorts of different design details in every day life, as well as on the web.
I would really like to experiment with illustration, and intend to work with that a bit more once time permits. I bought a Wacom tablet that is unfortunately not doing much more than gathering dust at the moment. Once I get caught up on current projects I’m working on – I would like to spend some concentrated time with my tablet and Adobe Illustrator.
(Of course, I have a friend who said that “I’m finally caught up” is what she’s going to have printed on my gravestone.
What advice would you give to any aspiring designer or blogger looking to make it in the industry?
- Working in design is like being a terminal college student. As technology moves forward and progresses, so must you. Stay up to date or you’ll be left behind.
- Admit when you’re wrong. Apologize when you screw up. Acknowledge your limits. Avoid making promises you cannot keep.
- Network with other designers in the industry. They are not your enemy just because you perceive them as competition. They will be a good resource for you, and vice versa.
- There is always room for improvement.
- Keep copies and backups of every single project you’re involved with. This includes creative work and communications. You just never know when you might need them.
- I guess that’s advice for any designer; new or old – present company included.
Finally, which do you prefer? iPhone or Blackberry?
Blackberry, for sure. As much as I’ve tried – I’ve never been a Mac girl.
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