Kinsta Kingpin: Interview With Tom Willmot
By Brian Jackson, Updated: June 5, 2017
Q1: What is your background, & how did you first get involved with WordPress?
Like a lot of folks in our industry, I got into web design as a hobby at quite a young age. Building websites in Microsoft FrontPage and then Macromedia Dreamweaver and ColdFusion. I trained in sports & outdoor education at college and went into that industry directly from there. Web design was something I did in the evenings and at weekends for fun. As part of that, I ended up building a few websites for friends and family and then at around 18 landed my first paid work, slicing some PSDs into a static HTML website. No Tables! I loved the feeling and decided to try my hand at freelancing. By this time I was playing around with WordPress (early 2005), using it for my blog etc. I decided to list myself as a WordPress developer which turned out to have been a good decision. I was hired quickly and ended up working on some of the early large-scale WordPress installs, sites like http://geek.com. I continued to contract directly with clients until I was so busy that setting up an agency was the natural next step. In 2010 I co-founded Human Made with Joe and soon after Noel joined as a 3rd partner.
Q2: What should readers know about Human Made, & what kinds of clients are a good fit?
Today, HM is a 40 person WordPress company. We’re predominantly focused on our enterprise agency work where we’ve built a strong reputation as one of the world’s best. We’re suited to clients who’re building large-scale or otherwise complex WordPress focused projects. Usually, those which require a team of developers + project management working for months at a time. Our typical clients spend 6-7 figures annually with us.
We’re not solely focused on being an agency though, WordPress runs deep in our veins and we care deeply about the future of the platform and community. We’ve put a lot of work into the WP REST API, both by directly supporting 2 of the 4 members of the leadership team and by running conferences like A Day of REST (Come to Boston on March 9th) and A Week of REST. We also heavily invest in several other areas. for example, both the Core Polyglots and Accessibility leads work at Human Made as do 4 members of the group who have Core commit access.
We really think of Human Made as being focused on two things. The first, being great at WordPress. And the second being a fantastic place to work. Our remote-first culture and our diverse and happy team are a huge part of how we think about the success of the company. We’re hoping to do more there too, initially by sharing our experience (check our Out of Office conference on Nov 29th) and by building products that serve remote workers. Nomadbase, a product currently in active development, is designed to help remote workers and digital nomads find each other as they’re traveling around, after all, hanging out with Humans in real life is super important!
Q3: What challenges did you face in building the agency?
There have been numerous challenges along the way, with undoubtedly many more to come. A couple stick out and are, I think, the key to the success we’ve found so far. The first is people. At its core, a company like ours is a sum of the people we’re able to hire and retain. So the challenge then is how do we go about hiring the absolute best people we’re able to and how do we retain them over the long-term.
Building a company that great people want to be a part of is hard and continues to be a challenge every day. Identifying this challenge early on meant that we’ve almost always had a laser focus on the health of our team, from hiring to our underlying team culture. Just recently we’ve been working with a PHD student undertaking research into the stress factors that are unique to remote work environments, research we’re learning a ton from and intend to share with the wider community soon.
Growth in itself is always a challenge in a business that’s self-sustaining. Your health is about balancing growth vs cash flow. Hoard money too conservatively and you’ll stagnate, potentially missing out on opportunities or getting overtaken by a less risk-averse competitor. Grow to quickly and you’ll be spending money before you have it (there’s can be a large delay before new hires are ramped up working on billable projects that are returning cash flow). We intend for Human Made to be around for the long-term, so we’re certainly not aiming for hyper-growth. Instead, we approach growth strategically, always asking does growing further make us stronger.
Q4: Did anything surprise you during the process of growing it?
I’m still surprised at just how much has changed in what still feels like a pretty short amount of time. It was only 5 years ago that it was just Joe, Matt and I working together in a small room, excited to have a won a project that we’d almost certainly think was too small for us today, writing code we’d surely all be terrible embarrassed to look at now.
Generally, though, surprises are negative when growing a business. The kick in the guts when an employee tells you they want to leave or a client going bankrupt out of the blue (both have happened to me). The good things are rarely a surprise, they’re in view the whole time, whilst you do the hard work necessary to reach them.
Q5: What does the future look like for the agency?
There are huge opportunities for WordPress in the enterprise CMS marketplace. As WordPress becomes more capable, performant and secure on the one hand it’s running head-first into the “consumerization” of enterprise IT on the other. IT needs are becoming less onerous, with a move towards modern digital processes, tools, and services and away from proprietary (and often expensive) bespoke or heavily customized systems. We’re focused on continuing to bridge the gap between enterprise and Open Source and intend to continue to offer services best suited to our customer’s needs. We’re also excited about the move towards the headless CMS and are enthused by the inclusion of the WP REST API into WordPress 4.7. We plan to continue to grow so far as it allows us to increase the impact we’re able to have in the areas we care about; Be that our client’s success or the long-term health of the WordPress community and platform.
Q6: I know you’re a featured partner for WP VIP. If the client doesn’t have the budget for that, what do you look for in a managed WordPress host?
We find our clients are often split between hosting internally themselves or hosting with an enterprise-friendly managed host. We’re now at a point where the managed hosting market does a pretty solid job technically. Hosting a high-traffic WordPress site whilst keeping it performant and secure is mostly a solved problem. With enterprise, a solid technical capability is only one part of the puzzle though, and often not the largest part. Typically a much greater level of importance is placed on account management and support, hosts which have cracked that and are able to deal confidently with enterprise customers in their own (unique) language are primed to do very well.
Q7: What do you enjoy doing when you’re away from your laptop?
I’m an avid climber and try to get to the local bouldering wall as much as I can. Regular yoga is great for reflection and relaxation. On top of that, I love to cook and am a huge fan of the various recipe box companies (we use abelandcole.co.uk).
Q8: Who should we interview next, and why?