Interview with Vlad Olaru, Co-founder and CTO at Pixelgrade

In conversation with Vlad Olaru, who is the Co-founder & CTO at Pixelgrade, a design studio that focuses on easy to use and simple WordPress themes to solve digital problems for the modern websites of today.


TWPH: Thank you for joining us for this interview today! So being widely recognized in the WordPress community sounds awesome, tell us about how you took the first step to build Pixelgrade and the many awesome themes it’s offering its customers?

Vlad: Thanks for the invitation 🙂

Pixelgrade evolved naturally from our freelancing work. George and I (co-founders and brothers) had quite a few years of doing client work, either together or separately, with gigs from all over the world. We created Pixelgrade to take things to their natural next step: create a team to share the load and fun with.

After a few years of tackling ever bigger projects, we realized that we were on the verge losing our inner why, and our sanity in the process. So we decided to drift away from custom work into focusing on products. Since we had some experience with WordPress already, it felt right to package our quirky way of doing things into premium WordPress themes. ThemeForest was booming at the time and it provided us with the perfect entry point.

From our first successful theme on ThemeForest (it was called Senna) things progressed in unexpected, yet exciting ways through today. We are deeply grateful for this life altering journey.

TWPH: What does your typical workday look like? Are there projects that you are proud of? Can you share the most complicated or most interesting project you have worked on?

Vlad:It is hard to say since we have quite a dynamic, and the workdays don’t usually look alike. Of course, there are times when we repeat some set of actions because it’s part of the game. Every single job requires a certain ceaseless task, no matter if we’re talking about maintenance, marketing, or even design.

We’re the kind of guys and gals who understand the power of resilience and why it’s essential to keep the house clean in the long run.

However, we like to believe that we know how to keep our wheels spinning and find projects that get us out of the comfort zone and throw us in an arena full of uncertainties, unknown, and mystery. Pushing the boundaries lies is buried deep inside us, so we don’t need a special day to allow ourselves to dream; we do that naturally.

Regarding projects per se, the most complicated are probably the ones our customers never get to see. These are projects that move things forward at lower levels, in fundamental ways, hopefully.

One such project was, and in some ways it still is, our attempt at creating a new way to think about digital products, from design to implementation and back. We’ve dubbed this project Flamingo.

It shares goals with the whole Design Systems building tools narrative, but we aim at solving a deeper underlying difficulty: turning computers in the (design) thinking aides they were always meant to be, not just glorified digital pen and paper. A very tall order, by any measure.

We are still incubating it, pushing it to one side when we have more pressing matters, dream about it when we gain some breathing room, iterate certain aspects through our themes and development processes, research academic papers, and so on.

TWPH: In your experience, how has WordPress evolved during the last 5 years? Any worth mentioning trends or major shifts you’d like to highlight?

Vlad: Five years is a long time in internet times. Come to think about it, lots has happened. On the one hand, you have very public, very visible shifts, the new block editor (Gutenberg) being the Goliath of the bunch. On the other hand, things have started boiling in the ecosystem as a whole.

We are now three years after the Gutenberg project was first announced, one year after it reached the WordPress core in version 5.0, with a couple more years ahead for things to reach the vision laid out by Matt Mullenweg (co-founder of the WordPress project). This project has taken the entire WordPress community for a rollercoaster ride with no warnings or safety instructions. Some are thrilled, some are scared, some hold their breath and keep their eyes closed, while some are still down in the park. Bewilderment would be a good word for it.

At the same time, the cataclysmic shift generated by the new paradigm of “everything is a block” surfaced deeply hidden struggles of the WordPress project. Suddenly, internal and external governance has come into view with initiatives like The WordPress Governance Project; people started to notice that not all contributors are created equal, some are more equal than others; big, commercial entities that have managed to stay behind the scenes with paid “free volunteer work” had to step closer to the light. The WordPress ecosystem is in full swing and we don’t know how it will settle.

A the same time, something else has been slowly happening with WordPress: it is past childhood, well into late adolescence. WordPress as an ecosystem is maturing, with all the ups and downs that come with it. We see a bigger enterprise space with acquisitions left and right (Automattic bought WooCommerce and Tumblr, WPEngine bought StudioPress and Flywheel, and on and on). We see bigger agencies and bigger plugins serving them, primarily (Elementor is a front-runner here).

We see hosting services offering a much simpler, yet comprehensive experience (GoDaddy through blocks and free themes), coupled with much more involvement in the community. So while the bigger get bigger, the smaller… get nowhere, at least not with some radical perspective shift. We see huge opportunities at the lower end of the scale since things are only getting more complex (despite the promises of Gutenberg).

TWPH: Since the Internet has evolved the shape of digital marketing in recent years, what according to you are the best trends to market your product and services in the WordPress community?

Vlad: To be honest, it’s hard to say, even though we like making bets from time to time, both on a personal and organizational level. However, things got tricky not only because of how the Internet evolved but also due to how the WordPress ecosystem is shaping.

Our ambition stayed the same from the beginning: to build digital products that both solve real digital problems and make us proud.

Today, maybe more than ever, we genuinely believe that the best way to market our products is by investing in developing our shop.

The straightforward reason is that it gives us the gateway to craft an experience for our customers from top to toe: from how we present our WordPress themes to how we offer customer support, and how we keep the communication meaningful across the board.

This being said, we will laser focus in this area, and the results we’ve been getting in the last year show us that this is the right thing to do. The revenue we capture on pixelgrade.com is getting higher (slow but steady) from one month to another, so we have solid reasons to continue to invest time, energy, and money in this direction.

On top of that, the dialogue with our customers is more consistent, and since our mission is to help people have an impact within their communities, this effect is a proof that we are on the right track.

If freedom is a golden mine, then constraints are the miners who are looking after it. Controlling the experience sounds like a dream come true, but the reality is that it implies a lot of effort and resources. So yeah, market your products and services in a way that makes sense for who you are as a business and how you plan to impact the world.

TWPH: What resources/tutorials/blogs/ebooks would you recommend to a novice WordPress user?

Vlad: It’s hard to choose just a few since being a novice WordPress user could mean something entirely different for each of us. I’m saying that because, a year back or so, we tested a new product called Pixelgrade Blogs — our batch of blogging themes coupled with solid WordPress hosting packed as a membership.

The customers were newbies in the WordPress world, but that covered a range of profiles: from people who did not even know what a CMS means to those who had some experience with blogging. That’s why I think there are essential nuances when talking about novices.

However, if I were to recommend three resources only, I would start with:
1.   WordPress.org Support
2.   WPBeginner
3.   WP101

Of course, there’s always the get your hands dirty kind of approach that’s available for anyone. Just jump into cold water, play with things, break them, and learn on the go..

TWPH: If WordPress wasn’t here, what CMS would you be developing for?

Vlad: Probably none 🙂 We would probably have our own kind of platform. But, if I were to have to pick a CMS, Ghost comes to mind, static site builders like Gatsby or Hugo are interesting and on the up-and-up, and we should not forget about Shopify (nice ecosystem, nice developer documentation and thinking, high bar for quality).

TWPH: Have you ever tried Truly Managed Hosting? If you have, what are your thoughts on it? And if you haven't would you like to try it?

Vlad: I haven’t tried it yet. The list with offering and tools that I should try never ceases to increase. I promise to put it in the queue and give it a spin.

TWPH: Given all that you have experienced, given all that you now know and given all that you have learned, if you could pass on only one piece of advice, what would it be?

Vlad: Stick to your values. No matter how things evolve, both in terms of business, ecosystem, teams, marketplaces, and so on, there’s no better landmark than your values. They will guide and help you navigate all kinds of scenarios: from murky waters to more serene landscapes.

If you don’t practice making decisions in alignment with your values, you will feel lost at some point. On the contrary, if you put them at the core of everything you do, listen to your inner-why, and be transparent, the opportunities are quite limitless.

TWPH: Who would you nominate for our next interview? 🙂

Vlad: ThemesKingdom, a fellow, design-focused WordPress theme creator, or Elmastudio.

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