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Interview with Syed Balkhi of WPBeginner and Uzzz
I was recently fortunate enough to get the chance to interview Syed Balkhi, the founder of Uzzz, a premier web design firm, and WPBeginner, a site dedicated to helping people maximize their WordPress knowledge in a simple, easy-to-follow way.
Syed shared a lot about what has made his companies successful, and he has some great insights into everything from SEO and design to customer service. You’ll get a lot of useful information from this interview, so let’s get to it!
You’re currently heading up two companies: WPBeginner and Uzzz. Let’s start with Uzzz. It’s more than just another web design firm. What sets you apart from the crowd?
The first thing that sets us apart is that we care about your users. Most web design firms want to make their client happy, but our goal extends further to make our client’s audience happy. We communicate with our clients and transform their great ideas into a visually stunning site that keeps their users happy. After all, it is the users that we design for.
We believe in empowering our clients by giving them choices and options. In recent years, we have narrowed our focus on developing entirely on WordPress, so over 95% of our clients are actually running on WordPress. The reason for this drastic change in business model is so our clients can be self-sufficient when it comes to tweaking their sites. Many think it is a bad business decision because we are losing money from the hourly rate that we could be charging, but I think that we are actually allowing ourselves to grow by effectively managing our time. This also builds a good trust relationship. We don’t believe in charging the client an insane hourly rate for minor tweaks. It’s a win-win for all parties involved.
If there is one thing that we do best, it is our ability to create sites that harness maximum traffic from search engines and social media. The majority of our clients come to us for this very reason. We have done extensive research on which site style works, what tools are necessary, and which approach the company should take. Through our tools and services, we have helped some very well-known companies.
These days, there are many companies that outsource the majority of their development. The best part about our company is that we are based entirely in U.S. While there are a lot of great developers abroad, in our experience, the quality suffers when you try to outsource to maximize profit. Our entire goal is to create a site with a “WOW” effect – because that is going to be most profitable, for us and our clients.
You’ve created sites for some pretty recognizable clients, like Get Satisfaction, FlowTown, and BuySellAds. Do these clients come to you through word of mouth, or do you go out and get them?
I’m glad you noticed that. I run on a $0 advertising budget. We get our clients through various sources. Some big name companies have found us through our site, WPBeginner. A lot of the clients come through referral from other media companies that we have relationships with. The quality of our work speaks for itself, so a good number of our clients come to us through referrals from past clients. I can’t really thank all of my clients who have spread such kind words about us among their friends and through social media. Thankfully, we are at a point that we do not look for more work. Because you have mentioned some brands, I will give a brief overview of how we came to work with them:
We were introduced to Flowtown through one of our associate media companies. Dan and Ethan are both amazing folks, and they have helped us a lot (by making some key email introductions and putting in kind referrals). GetSatisfaction also came through as a referral from another media company. I have been using BuySellAds since 2009. Over these years, I contributed to their development by suggesting new features that I would love to see (like any active user would). Todd and I got in a good relationship, and then he asked us to do their blog design. That just goes to show that being an active user in the community can help you in more ways than you might think.
Almost two years ago, you founded the WordPress resource site, WPBeginner to answer the need for resources specifically geared toward WordPress beginners. What prompted the idea for that site?
As I mentioned, we made a drastic change in our business model for Uzzz by switching all of our clients to WordPress. Shortly after, we found ourselves answering the same questions over and over for different clients. We thought about creating a bunch of PDF manuals, but then that idea evolved into a web-based guide for our clients and the larger WordPress community. I had been using WordPress since 2006 (all self-taught), but I never saw a single site that explained everything step by step for users who wanted to do things by themselves. Sure there were articles on Smashing Magazine here and there, but no central source.
The codex has a lot of great information, but you have to know how to read it to make the most out of it. So we took all questions that our clients had, and put them on a new site called WPBeginner. We sent out an email to all of our clients to submit the questions through the site’s contact form rather than emailing us individually, so we have a central database of questions. I used Twitter to send out one of the most viral tweets ever through our new @wpbeginner account “Do you have a question about #WordPress? Ask @wpbeginner (Pls RT)” This tweet was retweeted by some of the prominent people on Twitter (a lot of them were my friends). Next thing you know, we have bunch of articles in the database and they are being shared everywhere.
WPBeginner is a great concept, but was there any concern that the better job you do teaching beginners, the quicker they’re no longer interested in your site?
That question never popped in my head in the beginning. The whole idea behind the site was to empower our clients and other users in the community. By providing all this information for FREE, our main goal was to build a loyal community, which I think we succeeded in doing. As the site grew, a lot of our users were becoming intermediates and some even went on to creating their own WordPress plugins. This actually helped us, because a lot of them stuck around in the community, and a lot of them are still there. Some of them are very active in the community. They contribute articles to WPBeginner, help answer questions on our Facebook page, site comments etc.
We did shift our model a bit and started writing for various skill levels. Now the site has tutorials for very beginners, intermediate users (I call them DIY users), and advanced users as well. However, we try to make our advanced tutorials easy to understand, so the intermediate users can follow them as well.
You’ve got over 15,000 Twitter followers and nearly 8,000 Facebook fans, so it looks like you’re doing a great job harnessing social media to spread your message. Do you feel it’s been effective for you? What would you say is the most effective marketing you’ve done – or what brings you the most traffic?
Social media has been everything for us. I don’t think it would have been possible to grow as fast as we did if it was not for social media. In the beginning we hit a lot of front pages on Digg, due to my power user profiles there. Twitter for a long time was the second largest referral source of traffic for us. A lot of industry leaders retweeted us, including Darren Rowse (ProBlogger), Robert Scoble, Smashing Magazine, Chris Brogan, Jim Kukral, Mashable, and many others.
Without social media, it would not have been possible for us to be featured in Wired.com within the first 3 months of the site being live. I credit Twitter for a lot of our early success. Now you are probably wondering – how the heck did we do any of that when the account was so new? We utilized Twitter’s search feature and answered every question that others were asking with the hashtag #WordPress. We got a lot of our early followers that way, and a lot of them are still around.
Ever since the Facebook Like button came out, Facebook has replaced Twitter as the second largest referral source of traffic for us. The like button is just so viral. One of the reasons behind our continued success on Facebook is our interactive Facebook community. Facebook has been introducing a lot of cool features such as Facebook Questions, the Send button and others, which have increased the traffic and engagement we receive from our Facebook community.
You’re somewhat of an SEO expert too, but I read that you believe it’s important to create a site for your visitors, not the search engines. Can you tell us more about your SEO philosophy?
Gone are the days when stuffing keywords was crucial for your ranking. The entire goal of search engines is to help users find the most relevant content. Old school SEO companies used to game the system by putting keywords in every sentence, and then buying links in web directories and other sites. It was to the point where the sentences made absolutely no sense.
The search engine algorithm, the bots, and the average users have all gotten a lot smarter in recent years. Search engine bots can now read content a lot better, so readability of your content matters. Algorithms have been perfected to take account for paid links as well. So the question comes down to how do you get more backlinks? SEO firms, and online marketers are now relying on social media to spread their news, so other bloggers and website owners can find and link to their content. In the era of real-time media, web users have zero tolerance for crappy content. Your best bet is to write useful content for your site’s users, so they share it on social networks. This opens the potential for other media outlets to find your content and potentially link to it. If you have a site like ours that attracts consultants and other developers, then you need to work extra hard on making sure that you write excellent content for your visitors. Often we see that other developers and consultants share our articles on their company blogs or their social media pages.
Thanks to all our users that share and link to our content, it often gets noticed by authority sites like Mashable, Wired.com, and others who then end up linking to us from their articles.
A backlink coming from those authority sites can significantly boost your search engine rankings, and I don’t think we can get in there without quality content.
So to make it short and simple, it is the people who look for your content in search engines. It is the people who link to your articles from their sites. It is the people who share your article on media outlets, so their friends can potentially link to it. It is because of all these actions done by people, you rank high in search engines. If you write for search engines and search engines only, you can forget about sustaining high rankings.
On all your sites, you list your six-year-old brother, Zain as someone who contributes. He’s a blogger himself too, right? Tell us a little about Zain.
It’s a bit of a silly story how I got Zain involved. He was four years old and because he was the youngest, we would make videos of him doing his daily things. Because he was a kid, he had a different way of thinking and doing things. He started asking me questions about what I do and such, so I did my best to explain it to him. He was interested, so I put up a quick video blog for him. But because I was in college, and Zain couldn’t keep up with the blog himself, we took it down.
Since then, he has been learning how to use WordPress. The reason why he is listed on WPBeginner as a contributor is because he comes up with a lot of tutorial ideas. He also gives us tips on the user interface on our own sites and clients’ designs. You would be surprised about things that we as designers often overlook. So, yes Zain is a blogger, but he is not the one doing all the writing (at least not at this point). There are goals of resurrecting his video blog soon.
As a college student who was also running multiple sites and businesses, how did you manage your time? Do you feel like either your school or business suffered at all as a result of the other?
Thankfully college is over. I graduated last month with Honors from University of Florida. However, I have been doing my business since high school, so yes it was very hard running multiple businesses while keeping up with the school work. I definitely prioritized my work over school, so I did notice that school suffered a bit. Thankfully, the teachers at University of Florida are very understanding of the situation, so they did not penalize me when I was away for conferences.
During the last two years, I was very involved in speaking, so my travel schedule was very packed. It came to the point where I thought about dropping out. I think as a collegiate entrepreneur, you need to understand that you are signing up for two full-time jobs. I can’t begin to tell how many nights, I just went on two hours of sleep. You also need to prioritize your goals because there will be times when you have to pick one over the other. For me, my business was more important than school. So I did get penalized sometimes, but as an entrepreneur, you live with the consequences of your actions. I managed to graduate cum-laude (honors), and I am very glad that school is over. I wish I could say that it was easy or that I had a magic formula, but there was none.
What’s the most important advice you can give to an entrepreneur just starting out in business?
Premier Customer Service. You are nothing without your customers. You don’t need a million dollars to start a business – what you need is a customer. Keep your customers happy. The power of real-time social media is that it can jumpstart your company, but it can also significantly hurt your brand. Never underestimate someone because they do not have a high number of Twitter followers. For all you know, the 100 people who are following this person may be the most important ones.
To give you an example, Matt Mickiewicz (@sitepointmatt), the founder of SitePoint and 99designs, only has 8,000 followers, which is not a lot these days, because every other person is using an automated Twitter follow script. But this guy is a co-founder of a multi-million dollar business, and he is connected with some very well-known people. My personal account (@syedbalkhi) has fewer than 3,000 followers, but I am very well connected in the web world.
My point is that you should always provide premier customer service, no matter how big or how small the user’s following is. Care for your users and believe me, you will never have to pay for an advertisement again.
What’s your definition of success?
I think you are successful when you are able to spend your life however you want to.