Pressing on and pushing through – #035

Podcast Guest: Cathy Tibbles

Today, we’re speaking with Cathy Tibbles.

She’s been working with WordPress for many years and founded an agency – WP Barista.

She’s come on the podcast today to tell us about the journey that she’s had creating and maintaining her website building business.

It’s quite a personal story as we mix family and business, separation and struggle along the way. You see, Cathy had a period where things were not working out so well. Her WordPress business needed to move from being a fun thing to do to raise some extra cash to a way of funding the whole family, and this transition needed to happen very quickly indeed.

We learn about the steps that Cathy took to achieve this… what she thinks she did well, and other things that she feels were less effective. Overwork, hiring staff, worry, and a happy ending, it’s all here.

So have a listen to the podcast and get in touch to tell us what you think.

Interviewed by Nathan Wrigley.

We hope you enjoy the show, please do subscribe on Apple Podcasts or Spotify. We’re always looking for feedback, if you have any thoughts or comments, please do reach out.

And remember… Together we can #PressForward

Podcast Details

Nathan Wrigley: [00:00:00] Welcome to the Press Forward podcast. I’m Nathan Wrigley, and I’d like to thank you for joining us again, and if this is your first time with us, well, I hope that you like it and that you find it useful. 

We release the PressForward podcast each and every week and we’d love it if you had it off your list of podcasts, the ones that you consume regularly. You can do that by subscribing to us on your favorite podcast player. All you need to do is go to wpandup.org/podcast/feed/.

Today we’re going to be talking to Cathy Tibbles, but before that, please let me tell you a little bit about what WP and UP do and perhaps how you might become involved. We’re a nonprofit working within the WordPress space with a mission to offer support to those who need it. This could be with your mental health, your physical health, or perhaps with your business or skills. 

Whatever it might be, you can reach out to us. We offer a range of support options such as phone, live chat, and email. And we’ve helped many, many people so far. You can find out more about this on our homepage at wpandup.org

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A few weeks ago, we started to offer a much more bespoke, à la carte way that you can help us out. Now you can pick and choose which areas of WP and UP you’d like to sponsor. So, for example, if putting your brand in front of thousands of live event attendees fills you with joy, then you can sponsor those specifically. If you love the longevity of hearing your brand played out across the speakers, then the Press Forward podcast is for you. 

It may be that you’d like your logo on the wpandup.org website. That’s an option too. Perhaps you simply want to give with no expectation in return. Well, you can donate in that way too. Go to wpandup.org/fund/ to find out more. Thank you. 

So, today we’re speaking with Cathy Tibbles. She’s been working with WordPress for many years, and she’s founded an agency, WP Barista. She comes on the podcast today to tell us about the journey that she’s had creating and maintaining her website building business. It’s quite a personal story as we mix family and business, separation and struggle along the way.

You see, Cathy had a period where things weren’t working out so well. Her WordPress business needed to move from being a fun thing to do to raise extra cash to a way of funding the whole family. And this transition needed to happen very quickly indeed. So we learn about the steps that Cathy took to achieve this, what she thinks she did well, and the other things that she feels were less effective. Overwork, hiring, staff, worry, and a happy ending. It’s all here. And so without further ado, say hello to Cathy Tibbles.

Cathy Tibbles: [00:03:50] I’m Cathy Tibbles and I run a WordPress agency, WP Barista. Originally, we were called desperately seeking WordPress, and then I thought that was too long. So then it was DSWP, which didn’t make any sense. And so I settled on WP Barista for custom made websites. I didn’t know anything about computers. 

When I had my first kid 19 years ago, my husband thought I could get rich being a blogger, and that’s when Ree Drummond was just starting to become popular. The pioneer woman, who now has the TV show and everything. So he thought that would be a great idea for me cause I was bored silly at home with babies. I had no idea, the Internet versus a blog, I only knew how to use Microsoft Word. 

I started, and then I didn’t really like the designs at the time, and then they didn’t have widgets or anything like that, so you had to learn PHP. Then I kinda got bored of that. And so then I just kept going. And pretty soon people started asking me for help. And then a couple of years later I needed to go back to work for some funds, to help with the family budget. And so it was like, okay, I can’t help you guys anymore unless you pay me (laughs).

And it was $20 for a WordPress installation (laughs). 

Nathan Wrigley: [00:05:24] I’m sure that many people started their web design and development business as a bit of a side hustle. You get interested in the technology of the Internet, become curious about how to build websites. And so you have a little play. Before too long, you found some tools that you like and you’re off to the races.

At some point, the first piece of paid work arrives and you start to think that you might be able to take this from a hobby to a career. I wondered how the transition into paid work went for Cathy. 

Cathy Tibbles: [00:05:57] You know, I’ve always, what’s that syndrome? The imposter syndrome everybody talks about. I find that so real in my case, because I didn’t have to have an income for quite a few years.

It was play money. So anything that came in PayPal was like just shopping money. So I don’t think that really counts as a business (laughs). You know, I’d always struggled with depression since I was a young adult, and so it turned out that I could do this on my own schedule. I didn’t have to show up to work every day at eight o’clock and leave at five and, and I wasn’t very successfully treated in my young twenties; I don’t know if anybody really is.

So it took a lot of years for my mental health to really get stable. And during that time, working from home and WordPress itself was such a blessing, like I don’t think I could have done anything else. And so it did, actually allow me to bring in a second income. It was fairly stable at the time. 

One thing that I did, I think it was 2007, is I went to a WordCamp in Vancouver and I’m a fairly shy person by nature. So it took like I was sick just to go cause I knew I didn’t know anybody. And I would have to put myself out there to go talk to people if I was like, why bother going if you’re not going to go talk to somebody. That was probably one of the most successful things I ever did for my business.

I still get leads from the designers that I met. 

Now I do more on the developing side and work for different designers, and just that event alone made a huge difference. And then, you know, there’s a couple of clients that are still mine that I can point to that believed in me and took a chance when they really didn’t have to.

Like they were quite big bloggers. And a couple of those, and then you serve them really well and then they tell their friends, and it has been good. I mean, of course I have my ups and downs. There’s been years when I freak out every December because it’s super busy for bloggers who are my core clients, and they’re really too busy to do much designing and developing, and so I used to freak out and think I’m never going to work again (laughs). But now you kind of learn the mountains and the hills and valleys or whatever that’s called. 

Nathan Wrigley: [00:08:32] Cathy’s family forms a very important part of her story and like all families, it wasn’t always plain sailing. I asked her to lay out for us what was going on in her family at this time and how this affected her business and vice versa.

Cathy Tibbles: [00:08:51] I was married for almost 17 years and three kids, and over the years it became a stable second income. And then as I’m sure a lot of us have, I went through a divorce and… Before this I was trying to be professional and trying to be a big company, and so I would use words like us and we are going to help you and stuff like that because I wanted it to seem bigger than it was.

But when you go through something like that and you cannot, or at least I couldn’t suck it up to work a lot of days, it made me have to be real. And of course I had to be careful who you share things with and what you share, but it was a really interesting time. I thought I would lose my entire business.

I didn’t know how much to share. There was just a few clients that if I really let them down, I would explain in general terms that, you know, there is a bit of a family crisis, and I would get back to them this day or that day. And I ended up, I probably lost maybe half the clients, 40%, 50% of my clients at that time.

But we managed, we got through, and then I became a single mom with three kids. And so at that time, now I needed to support my family, and my business was sort of tanking at the time. At that time, I’d also gotten to the point where I had gone past my abilities for coding, and so I had hired a coder and I had hired a part-time coder, part-time designer.

Because it was, I’m not professionally trained and the clients really, I was getting to the point where I was charging enough that I should have somebody professional do it. And so she has been fantastic. And then, I also hired an assistant and she has saved my behind. I cannot emphasize enough having an assistant that you can really rely on, and she’s the opposite of me where I’m, I don’t want to say moody, what am I?

I’m, I’m exciting (laughs). I’m not boring. And so, I have my ups and my downs, and sometimes I can work like a crazy person and bang out all kinds of stuff. And then there’s some days where I’m just, you know, I need a few hours to myself. And the person I have as my assistant is complete opposite and I don’t know how she puts up with me because I admire her so much.

She just, she shows up every day. She answers emails within 10 or 15 minutes. She’s so, so disciplined. I really cannot recommend enough picking somebody to help you who is your opposite. There was a giant difference in our lifestyles. When we separated, I didn’t get anything. I didn’t have to give anything, but that part is actually still messy.

But the financial end of things, I didn’t get any support, so I was on my own financially with the kids, and at one point we were actually, homeless. I was looking for a home in the lower mainland area. Homes are just ridiculously expensive. I mean, my, my lifestyle had always been modest. I really believe in living pretty modestly.

Like I just don’t see the point in spending a lot of money. So in that way, I was really fortunate that it didn’t impact the kids very much. They didn’t see what was going on behind the scenes except that I was under so much stress to try and provide for this. So we had family that was helping me and we had rented a small apartment, a one room apartment for the four of us, but it was $1,200 a week.

And so I was under extreme pressure to buy a house or rent or anything. But renting here was impossible. It was actually more expensive by quite a bit to rent here than it is to buy. So working with a realtor, we finally got into a house. We just, there was just miracle after miracle actually, that kind of worked its way to that situation.

But what happened with my company was we got settled in the house, and during that time I really relied on my subcontractors to do quite a bit of it because we were so incredibly busy and once things got settled and we were into the house, I realized that I didn’t have enough to make it based on the income that I was getting monthly.

So… I have no idea how I made this decision. It seems insane at the moment, but I decided that I would give myself three months to make it work or quit and get a job. So because I couldn’t keep going. Like you just keep going and keep going into debt a little bit at a time and it was too stressful. So I needed some sort of deadline to say, okay, I’m not going to worry about making a decision. I’m going to go to this point, and then I’ll make a decision. 

So I got a credit card and we lived on a credit card for three months. At the end of three months, the business had actually grown to the point where we could support ourselves. 

Nathan Wrigley: [00:14:49] This must have been a very intense time knowing that your business had a clock running against it. If, at the end of three months, the business goals were not met, Cathy needed to find a new job. But she did succeed and I wanted to know if that was as a result of changes that she made. Or perhaps it was just a happy coincidence. 

Cathy Tibbles: [00:15:13] No, it wasn’t a coincidence. I was up. The only breaks I took were to take the kids to school and back. They helped with meals. We talked about it together. We were a team. They did most of the housework, like we really pulled together as a team. The kids and I, they were eight, nine and 14. So, yeah, we worked as a team and I worked long, long, like 16, 20 hour days. Now I think I would be a lot better. 

Like at the time I was really pushing social media and I had gotten into a group of ladies on Facebook and these business coaches and social media coaches, and everybody was pushing Facebook and Instagram and Twitter, Pinterest, of course. And so I did it all and I did lots of it. Podcast interviews, posting, the whole thing, like I just did everything I could possibly think of. Now, when things are slow, I don’t do any of that.

Now, I focus on my customer base and serve them well, and it’s so much less work and it’s not like — that’s really a gunshot approach, I think, to just shoot it out there and see what happens, and I prefer a much streamlined, how can I help you? Like what do my actual clients need at this point and how can I serve them? And that works better to me now.

Nathan Wrigley: [00:16:48] So Cathy knew what she had to do and she knew that this was not going to be something that she could do on her own. All of the family had to step up and help her to help them. She got them on board and working towards a common goal as a team. This was, perhaps, quite a difficult thing to achieve. Getting everyone to contribute. 

Cathy Tibbles: [00:17:14] Well, I know a lot of parents like to hide some of the difficulties. I don’t even know if I could, because I’m kind of an expressive person, so it just worked for us. And I’ve always been quite honest with my kids, not about the financial struggles. Like I try not to give them anything that would be something that they shouldn’t worry about at their age. But yeah, it was, okay, I’m going to have to get a job and that will mean not picking you up from school, not dropping you off at school. The freedoms that we have now. So I need you guys to pull together and also to let them know that there was a light at the end of the tunnel. Like I’m not just a workaholic. We are going to work and then we’re going to reassess. 

I should say, like I skipped over a bunch of stuff, right? Because it’s a sorted tale of years and years of, of all of, you know, the drama that goes into that. But between the divorce and that conversation was three years. So it wasn’t like they were still reeling from losing their father.

They were quite happy to be on our own, and they had their mom to themselves and we were in a home and so they felt more stable than they’d been in years. So yeah, I think the conversation and me being there for them would have been a lot different cause right after the divorce, you can’t just take off from your kids for 12 hour days. They’re devastated. 

Nathan Wrigley: [00:18:38] So during this period in which the business was on trial, Cathy mentioned that she was working up to 20 hours a day, and I think that we can all agree that this is unsustainable, and so I wanted to know what she was actually doing during those hours. Can you be productive for such a prolonged period of time?

Cathy Tibbles: [00:18:58] I was literally just trying to grow my business and for me that meant more clients. I have a very defined ideal client and they can’t afford $10,000 projects. My ideal client is a blogger that don’t have their own in-house technical support, but make enough professionally to be able to afford a coder at $85 an hour.

So that, that’s a pretty narrow window in my mind, and those are the people I was looking for. So. I did Facebook posts at I think three to five a day. I did Twitter for an hour or two twice a day. I did a blog post three times a week. I did a newsletter once a week on every blog post, of course, was shared across the place, and then I invested in Pinterest.

And I did Twitter chats and became known a little bit in those circles. Got a little bit of work from there. I did Instagram, posted several times a day on Instagram, but then, with Instagram, it’s community based. So then I went and spent hours talking to other people. Networking. I would call it networking online and it took a lot of time, at least for me, writing content seems to take quite a bit of time, and I would try to do like one topic a week, write a few things, then do all of the social media for it, schedule that all out, but then go through the networking process, talk to people, that kind of thing.

Email, um, existing clients. To see how they’re doing. I sent out actual mail to my clients, you know, like in the post (laughs), remind them that we’re still here. That I was still there. I talked to theme developers. I wrote a theme. I talked to plugin developers, tried to, I guest posted, got on a few podcasts and that is overworking.

That is a real gunshot approach. It’s just like, you just fire into the dark and it just goes everywhere and you hope it lands. It landed a little bit, but what I have like one client a month, maybe like from Instagram, maybe one or two conversations from Facebook, I became a little bit more known to some of the communities.

I worked really hard to get to know a couple of theme developers that I really, really admire, and I do still get referrals from them years later. So when their queue is full, they do know me and they know the quality of my work and they will refer people to me. Now that I look back, the clients that I got from social media, I still get now, and I don’t do social media.

So, I have a presence. I post a couple of times a week if that, but everything comes from referrals, and then I’m not shooting in the dark. People know who I am. If I quote something, I get it 99% of the time, so it’s not a waste of my time.

Nathan Wrigley: [00:22:29] So it seems like this was a difficult time, but perhaps it was time well spent.

I wondered if Cathy had this exact same three months over again, would she do anything differently? 

Cathy Tibbles: [00:22:46] I wouldn’t have learned what I’ve learned without doing that, I don’t think. Yeah, it was a colossal waste of time. But I don’t think I would have known that without doing it. Like I wouldn’t have trusted anybody else who told me that because it’s social media (laughs), it’s the way of the future sort of thing.

Everybody says that, and I don’t know if you know these groups on Facebook, but there are thousands and thousands of business coaches, and one of the things I’m super passionate about is helping new bloggers not get sidetracked and or ripped off by SEO experts and coaching experts because I mean, if they don’t have a successful business, how on earth are they coaching?

People come to me after they’ve spent thousands of dollars and it’s not worked, and my only advice is to focus on the clients that you have. Like, yeah, we need a social media presence. We do not need to spend 12 hours a day or eight or six. I would still be in those groups, I think, still wondering if I should spend that $10,000 on a business coach.

I would still be there waiting to save up that money to do that, because that’s the answer. And I did spend a couple of thousand, and I bought a couple of books and I tried the things, right. I went to a couple of conferences of some of the big speakers on social media, all of that stuff. I did do that, and I don’t know, I think a lot of us entrepreneurs are a little bit pig headed in that way. A little bit stubborn. Sometimes we don’t learn by others’ mistakes (laughs). We have to make them ourselves, and I’m definitely one of those people. 

Nathan Wrigley: [00:24:36] Although Cathy regards this time as wasted time, she did get through it. I know that if I were to have been faced with this situation, I would have been formulating backup plans from the get go. Things that I could do when and if things didn’t go according to plan. Did Cathy have a backup plan? 

Cathy Tibbles: [00:24:58] No backup plan. Because, I mean, it made me sick. I really tried not to think about it. If I thought about it, I like, I dunno how many ulcers I had, how many nights I went to sleep crying. You know how many times I called a friend who has a business and said, am I crazy or stupid or both?

But I didn’t have time to plan anything and I really didn’t know what I was going to do if I didn’t do this. Like I don’t have a degree in anything, and I couldn’t think about that. That was stressful as well.

Nathan Wrigley: [00:25:33] Cathy did not need a backup plan as it turned out, as she managed to get to where she wanted to be in the amount of time that she needed it to happen. Well, almost…

Cathy Tibbles: [00:25:48] No, it went past three months. I was barely scraping by three months, like we weren’t paying off that credit card for, oh, maybe six or nine months before I was confident that I could do it. It took a long time, but I needed to, I needed to see it. I needed to see a progress, maybe? I don’t know. I needed to know if I could do it and things were turning around so that I could make some ends meet, like I wasn’t living on the credit card.

Nathan Wrigley: [00:26:22] We turn away now from that period and focus more upon what happened after Cathy had found some stability. I asked her to describe some moments since then. That she’s filed away as significant and important.

Cathy Tibbles: [00:26:40] I don’t know if I ever really will feel confident, even though this is my 11th year or so. But I love what I do. I work with the best people. I can’t imagine doing anything else. You know, it’s funny, I, uh, went last winter or something and we went to the sports store and we got my kids their winter boots and I felt so blessed. I’m like, buying these ridiculously expensive boots in my mind. They’re ridiculous. You know? The kids grow out of them so fast, and I just was so, so thankful. I could have never afforded brand new boots years ago. You know, things were tight. We shopped thrift. We’re pretty thrifty with our spending and hand me downs and making things work.

We always had enough, but I feel really quite blessed and thankful that I can live the lifestyle that I have right now. I used to say that I wanted to have three people teams all over the world, a developer, a designer and a customer service person. Like that would just be ideal to have these little stay at home mom groups everywhere that helped people, serviced bloggers. 

Now I know I am nothing like that as far as a business person goes, I have a business mentor who runs a huge multimillion dollar company, and I am just not going to take those kind of risks. Like I’m not going to have that sort of operating capital. So, will I keep going? I don’t know. Because things change so fast. Like I’ll always be here to help my clients. I can’t just leave them high and dry, but as far as the tasks, they change quite a bit from developing themes to child themes to plugins to who knows, what that’s going to look like in the future, but I can’t just — I can’t leave them.

Nathan Wrigley: [00:28:51] One of the purposes of the PressForward podcast is to lift the lid on topics that don’t get talked about enough. To allow people to share their stories, so that other people might listen, and by listening, they may gain an understanding that they’re not alone. 

There are other people out there who have faced the same situations that you are facing. They have found a way through and can offer support to you on your journey. Maybe that person is already in your life, but they might not be. And that’s what WP and UP is here for, to connect you with the support that you need. 

So, if you’re able to, please help us, so that we can continue to support the WordPress community. You can donate at wpandup.org/donate/. Or have a look at the WP & UP partnership packages. They can be found at wpandup.org/partnership/.

That’s it for this week. Please let us know if you’re enjoying the podcast. If you’re finding it useful or helpful, you can reach out to us at wpandup.org/contact/. There’s a serious point to all of this and that is that WP&UP is here to provide help and support. That help is available to you or the people that you know and can be easily accessed at the wpandup.org website.

Please spread the word about this podcast. Tell your friends and subscribe on your favorite podcast player and remember that together we can #PressForward.

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