Chris Coyier on WordPress, business, and building the web

chris-coyierChris Coyier is not a stranger to most of us web workers. He’s a designer at CodePen, a writer at CSS-Tricks, and a podcaster at ShopTalk.

He uses WordPress on all three of his primary projects. For years, Chris has been a consistent advocate for the platform. He develops his own websites with WordPress, but his day-to-day interactions are as a user.

Chris brings a unique perspective, I believe. He did some client work early in his career, but he’s been more involved in SaaS projects and membership websites; his current membership websites are on WordPress (CSS-Tricks) and Ruby on Rails (CodePen).

I asked Chris about his projects, his perspective on various aspects of WordPress, and the community around it. I enjoyed learning from him, and I hope you do too:

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What have you learned from working on membership websites?

 It’s just a good dang business idea.

Chris was sold on the idea of membership websites from his tenure at Wufoo and SurveyMonkey (where he worked once they acquired Wufoo).

He uses Pippin Williamson’s Restrict Content Pro for managing The Lodge on CSS-Tricks. At CodePen, they spend time thinking about pricing, churn, and other membership metrics.

They talk about some of these things (and much more) on the CodePen Radio podcast — an awesome podcast for anyone interested in SaaS, not just CodePen.

Delivering value

Another aspect Chris noted about membership websites is how it makes you want to continually deliver value for customers. He always wants to make people feel like they’re getting excellent features and value for the price of their membership.

Another thing he and the CodePen team are learning is prioritizing feature requests. When you are building for members, you want to build features members want; and sometimes that goes against other fixes that are less glamorous. So they are consistently trying to balance time spent on customer-facing features versus behind the scenes development.

Build the feature, get the reward

Chris talked about how important it is for him to build something, then be rewarded for the work he does, versus selling something and then having to build the feature for it.

He experience this with his big Kickstarter project for a CSS-Tricks redesign a couple of years ago, and said that mentality was really difficult for him.

What do you appreciate more now about WordPress, after using other software?

WordPress comes with a lot of built-in features that many of us (I do at least) may take for granted. Need a user system? Check. Need comments? Check. Need categorization? Check.

Building CodePen, Chris is able to appreciate (even more than before) just how powerful WordPress is and how much thought goes into every feature.

We dove into something seemingly simple as an example: tags. It turns out that something even that simple takes a lot of thought, consideration, and user experience considerations.

What it ends up as, is something you’ll have to iterate on for years to get anywhere close to how good the WordPress one works already. And that’s like the tiniest thing we could think about. Think about the login system, or something else.

So his advice was to focus on simplicity and decisions when building features, because required effort grows rapidly as a feature gets more complicated.

How would you compare the WordPress community to other web communities?

Chris has exposure to a much broader web community than I do. I’m pretty locked into the WordPress bubble. He sees the Ruby on Rails world, the more generic web world, and attends and speaks at a slew of non-WordPress conferences every year.

Even though he says he’s mostly in a WordPress bubble himself (he’s not exactly attending Drupal conferences, he notes), he thinks that the WordPress community is pretty top-notch, and hasn’t seen other communities that are “better” than the WordPress community.

There’s definitely no other CMS that I’m jealous of that community.

What questions about WordPress are you always seeing on the ShopTalk Podcast

Chris and his co-host Dave Rupert (seriously, follow Dave and gain laughs and knowledge in life) get a lot of questions about WordPress on the ShopTalk Podcast. Some of these questions are repeated pretty frequently, and they see trends of common issues.

Working locally and syncing remotely

For WordPress, the most common questions tend to come around syncing the local development environment with the live environment. They’ve been recommending WP Migrate DB Pro for people trying to get around that, though Chris says he doesn’t think it’s perfect for huge websites like CSS-Tricks.

I think, to a degree, the common confusion is logical. WordPress development is really centered around three different layers of “stuff”: the content (posts, pages, etc), the files in the directory, and the site management database options. I think there is plenty of room for confusion when it’s not easy to decouple website management with website content, from a database perspective.

Learning more about WordPress through the lens of a different audience

I used this segment to talk about other confusing aspects of WordPress. We talked about database management, the degree of PHP knowledge required for WordPress theming, using pre-processors in distributed versus custom themes, responsive images, and the asset-itis of many WordPress websites that utilize plugins that each load their own scripts and styles.

Regardless of the specific issues people are having, I find tremendous value listening to ShopTalk — which is not as hardcore of a WordPress audience as I have here — where the trends of people’s struggles help reveal real struggles that perhaps we could build better tools for in WordPress.

It’s also worth noting that some of the “struggles” we talked about are very modern struggles, and WordPress has been around for over eleven years. WordPress iterates pretty quickly and does a great job of supporting modern web features, but it’s rarely immediate, especially in terms of core support. But plugin support and the shear number of people innovating on top of WordPress is significant and awesome.

Just build websites!

So many people want to be told what to do and what to learn next. That’s for sure the #1 question on ShopTalk.

In the face of lots of new and changing technology, Chris is often asked about what to do first, or what to do next. He and Dave have a core mantra at ShopTalk to encourage people to “just build websites!”

The things that you learn will happen as a result of building those websites and things for other people.

The degree of paralysis by analysis they see is significant, and Chris and Dave hope that people will let their experiences guide them versus a to-do list of things they must learn today.

You’re desirable

Another note is that pretty much everyone has something they can do to provide value to others. People surely know something from a tooling perspective that’s worthwhile; even sans-modern tools, basic knowledge of HTML and CSS — the building blocks of the web — could be a great asset to lots of business.

Even more important than tooling though, is the ability to solve problems. Chris used an example of a business that sells wrenches. If you can help a business that sells wrenches to sell more wrenches, then you are able to provide that business a lot of value; so focus on helping businesses do what they do better.

Learn by sharing

I admire Chris’ degree of sharing what he’s learning, through ShopTalk, CodePen Radio, and for years on CSS-Tricks.

He doesn’t do anything special to write about what he learns. He keeps his drafts right there in WordPress. He doesn’t take special notes. He just writes, and he often writes about what he’s learning.

Over time he’s been able to refine his writing and learn what to expect, as far as feedback goes. But at the core he just writes, and through that writing he’s been able to grow his own audience and get better at everything else he’s doing professionally.

Staying consistent and avoiding burnout

I was curious what Chris has done to stay so consistent online and avoid burnout. It seems to me that a lot of people get temporarily motivated and quickly disenchanted.

I’ve learned in my own experience with the web that any measure of success takes lots and lots of consistent effort. Chris hasn’t done a lot to think about avoiding burnout, but figures there are some things he subconsciously does to stay motivated.

That may be taking extended breaks from the web and disconnecting for a trip to the woods, or shorter breaks just in the day like stopping and playing the banjo for a few minutes.

Stay in touch with Chris

At the end of every episode of ShopTalk, Chris and Dave give guests an opportunity to plug whatever they want.

Chris’ plug for our interview was to advise folks to take some time off from building their own product and instead go into their issues list and clean up after themselves and their project — which is what Chris and team are doing at CodePen right now.

He also noted that nothing would make him happier than folks going Pro on CodePen. If you teach, interact with others, or want a way to store private pens, you should definitely check it out. And it’s affordable too, at only $75 for the year.

While he didn’t take the opportunity to plug much of his own stuff, you should definitely still check out his various projects. I’ve learned a ton from Chris since I started my own journey on the web. If my learning journey on the web were a university, I’ve definitely taken multiple classes from CSS-Tricks and the ShopTalk Show. Chris’ business is built on a three-legged stool right now. Check them out:

  • CodePen – a playground for the front-end side of the web.
  • ShopTalk Show – a podcast about front-end web design (and sound effects).
  • CSS-Tricks – where the whole internet learns CSS.

Also check out Chris’ fun about page with his life’s timeline and follow him on Twitter.


I’d like to thank Chris for the time he spent with me, and I hope that if you enjoyed this interview and write-up, that you’ll share it!