Interview with Christie Chirinos

Blog,Experts' Insights

Today we are happy to announce our next interviewee – Christie Chirinos, a Co-owner of Caldera Labs, Business Development Lead and WordCamp speaker! 🎉

Christie is an awesome person who has shared lots of helpful thoughts for you to learn. We hope you find the interview inspirational for your own personal growth and development efforts! As always, we invite you to join in with your comments at the end of this post. Enjoy!

Let’s start with a rather traditional question. Tell a few words about yourself for our readers to get acquainted with you. What is your career background?

I am one of the owners of Caldera Labs, a WordPress product shop, makers of the popular drag-and-drop form maker plugin Caldera Forms. My role is product management: I plan for, execute and promote products – specifically, software. It’s a little bit of business administration, a little bit of marketing, a little bit of development, and never only one of those things alone.

My career background isn’t that long. Before Caldera WP, I worked in tech roles at various nonprofit organizations in New York City. I loved those jobs because I learned a lot, made great friends, and made a difference with my work. I also got to experience first-hand what it is like to be the person who’s “stuck with the website” at your job on top of your other responsibilities. This first-hand knowledge has helped me understand our customers better. Before that, I was in school getting my MBA, which I entered immediately after undergraduate studies on the merits of the businesses I had started as a teen (which I’ll expand on below). So, I guess you could say my career background is just beginning.

You’re the Co-Founder of CalderaLabs. Can you share with us how the plugins were created and how you went about promoting it? What helps your solution stand out from other alternatives in the field in your opinion?

Caldera LabsLike much open-source software, Caldera Forms changed hands before it got to us – the original creator of Caldera Forms is David Cramer. Many of the add-ons we sell were also not created by us originally.

The founding of Caldera Labs was about stating our commitment to a commercial WordPress plugin shop, and it developed from a “side project” to “professional project”. We wanted to demonstrate a commitment to ongoing updates, support and features for professionals/enterprise – especially because enterprise needs the reliability and the security that it’s going to be a thing tomorrow, especially when looking at open-source options.

Our promotion was all about listening to the existing users. When Josh and I started Caldera Labs, Caldera Forms already had 20,000 active users, today it has 100,000+ (but still, 20,000 is not small!) – and so we asked ‘why, in an ecosystem with so many products like it already, had Caldera Forms, a form builder for WordPress, managed to amass such a following?’. To find the answers, we talked to current users, ran surveys, etc. We asked hard questions that sometimes felt difficult to ask: we knew why we loved the product, but was that the reason that other people loved the product?

We had originally thought people paid for support and to see ongoing development of the free addon. That was so wrong! people gave us a chance because we promised a lot free from the start (conditional logic, multiple pages, unlimited forms & fields), and they stayed because of our drag and drop, mobile responsive interface and customization of emails, etc. They paid for third party integrations and business applications. And so these questions, interactions and essentially listening to our users, began to shape the promotional strategy that took us to where we are today.

There is a list of conferences you are attending as a speaker including WordCamp. Do you remember your first presentation and your feelings? Was it difficult for you to overcome some stage fright? How about some funny and interesting stories?

Christie ChirinosYes, my first WordCamp talk was absolutely unforgettable! It was the WordCamp New York City 2016, at the United Nations Headquarters. They had accidentally put my user talk about A/B testing using our Ingot WordPress plugin (a product Josh and I did create on our own) in a developer room – and I was terrified out of my mind! So as silly as it sounds, no other talk has ever been as massively terrifying as that one, even as I’ve spoken at other larger events (I talked at WordCamp US and WordCamp EU in the last year, the largest WordPress conferences in the world).

To help overcome my stage fright, I had to really actually believe that I had (and have!) something to contribute. You hear this all the time and it sounds like hot air, but it’s not. Changing the mindset from “people are looking at me” to “how can I be the most helpful to this audience” helps lessen your own self-consciousness and your worry about presenting – while also making the experience better for everyone in the room, which is the main thing, really.

Oh, and once my mom came all the way to Nashville from Florida to see my WordCamp US talk! It was so embarrassing – she talked to a bunch of customers and vendors and told them she was my mom. I think no matter how old you get, parents are still a little embarrassing, but it was all really sweet.

I also try to talk at non-Wordcamps too – I want to make sure I’m sharing what I learn as much as possible. There are so many people trying to do this and we all need to support each other.

According to your blog, you have been building websites since you were 14 and had two online stores when you were 16. That’s impressing. Can you tell us more – how did you start with that? What were you like in high school?

Honestly, I was the least cool person in high school. Maybe not the uncoolest, but definitely bottom 5%, and in all seriousness, my interest in websites wasn’t about an interest in computer science, it was about an interest in money. Plus, it was also for an entertainment factor, and it was something for myself – I was a teen with a little brother and was being raised by an immigrant single mom who couldn’t really make ends meet most months, so I didn’t have cable television, vacations, or summer camps. My fun was a refurbished Gateway laptop and my library card and if I wanted spending money, I had to earn it!

My first website at 14 was a brochure site to promote myself teaching piano to neighborhood kids. I taught myself to play piano at age 7 using one of those keyboards that play little songs and have a light-up keyboard. My cousin had one. Then, at music class in my public school, I actually learned what I was doing, but of course piano lessons were so expensive – so I figured, maybe I could earn the money for them.  I kinda just learnt how to do it through Google, because I wanted to put a URL with more info on a Craigslist listing. In the end, I got two clients through it!

Then, I figured out my library would sell old books and CDs for 50 cents, so I just started buying them and selling them on eBay. Then I started selling random junk I found: around the house, garage sales, etc. This led to one of my friend’s dads giving me a bunch of old programming books to sell, so I started selling those on Amazon and also getting exposed to that world.

I also had a family member who would bring back Peruvian artisan jewelry to the US every time she traveled home to our country, and sell them at the local swap shop. She gave them to me to sell and I figured I would have better luck selling those on my own website rather than eBay, so then I figured out how to make an ecommerce store.

During all of this, no one in my life was like, “oh wow, you should be a programmer!” or “oh wow, you should be an entrepreneur!”, it was more like, my mom thought the shipping boxes in the living room were annoying and ugly, and my high school boyfriend questioned whether I would make more money per hour just working at a restaurant like everyone else. They weren’t trying to be mean, they just didn’t know. Everyone in my life saw I was doing something interesting, but no one knew enough to help me with it. I picked up nuggets on how to use the internet to my advantage from every person I knew, even though both they and I may not have realised it at the time, and that’s how I got myself through University, through my first job interviews, learned to cook, etc.

I believe there’s still a huge disconnect in our society’s understanding in regards to the opportunities that the internet has created for people (or could create for people!) – and we need to close that gap.

This story is also why I’m really passionate about information access, net neutrality, and diversity in tech. It wasn’t until later – like way later, once I had started working on Caldera Forms with Josh – that I told this story, and someone in the WordPress community said, “Wait, and no one said like hey, maybe if you got really good at this, you could make a lot of money?” and I was like “no, everyone kept telling me that piano teachers didn’t make a lot of money and I had to go to university to get a high salary job.”

How do you imagine WordPress in, let’s say, 10 years? To your mind, what new features will be available? Will its market share continue to grow?

This is a huge question because WordPress is at a turning point right now with Gutenberg and everything else that’s going on. The market for small business and individual websites is huge – I think like 300 million websites right now is the forecast? And WordPress has been the de facto leader,  but de facto leaders can fall. Platforms that come out first can amass massive market share due to that first-mover advantage, and keep it because entire ecosystems develop around it. But, that also leaves room for others to learn from this, and come out and do things better, and that’s what’s happening right now – for example, Wix is so good!

The decisions that get made right now are going to shape what the answer to this question is. The best choices for WordPress to survive, I believe, is to embrace its existing reputation as “software for anybody who has something to share.” Newcomers will often first hear the WordPress name when they think “Ok, I’m traveling / I’m cooking / I’m starting a business” and they need a website. We need to double down on those people, and not lose them with a confusing admin interface and being tough to customize. We have to prioritize accessibility and usability above all else.

We could then see its market share continue to grow in that way, yes, with more features to make it the tool of choice to bring to life “cool new things”. I  heard not too long ago that the blogs and ecommerce stores that teens like me were savvy for building in early 2000s, are not the case today. Savvy kids now are looking at VR, AR, and chatbots. So WordPress, in my ideal world, starts facilitating that.

What was the biggest problem you faced with while working on WordPress CMS? How did you manage to solve it?

WordPress is a giant, clunky tool. It’s supposed to be so easy, but the learning curve is so steep. They tell you it’s going to be a 5 minute installation and it usually isn’t. The hardest part was getting started, but once you wrap your arms around the basics of the CMS, you see the massive ecosystem surrounding plugins and themes (website templates), and you tune into the community that supports it as an open-source project, you realize why it’s so huge. But when it first comes out of the box it’s like, WTF?

Nailing the basics is key. You can build a couple of sites just for practice, i.e. having as a blog is an easy way to get started understanding how WordPress fits together, because it’s not a huge leap to go from customizing a theme to making your own, but it’s definitely a huge leap to go from “ooooh, websites are black magic” to “Oh, I made one using posts, pages, plugins  and themes”.

And Google is your friend – I tell everyone the main benefit to the main WordPress problem of “it’s really hard to get started”, is that WordPress is so popular that there is no question you could have, that someone hasn’t already had and answered online. You can type your question into google and 99% of the time you find an article that answers it, I’ve literally searched “how do I get the menu on the right hand side WordPress” and learned CSS that way.

Can you recommend your favorite WordPress theme or plugins to our visitors? What pieces of advice can you give to those who start working with WordPress?

My favorite WordPress products not already mentioned:

1. Elementor. Drag and drop page builder, super easy to use, extremely reasonably priced, the greatest. It doesn’t have 1,000,000 active installs for no reason. The team behind it is amazing. Your site will look so good.

2. Of course, Caldera Forms 🙂 Use us for your contact forms, but also your registration forms, application form flows, information form flow…. literally anything your org is doing on paper right now, or in a Google Forms or in SurveyMonkey is better and easier and looks sleeker on Caldera Forms. We have tons of documentation on how to use the product. Your efforts will look so pro when all of your stuff is branded to your own site and you’re not sending people off everywhere to get forms filled out, or worse, having them fill out paper forms.

Tell us a bit about your working setup (hardware + software). Could you please take a photo of your workspace?

I work on a 2017 Macbook Pro with the i7 processor upgrade, and 16 GB RAM. I’m almost always on the go, so having a good laptop is important to me. In my desk set up, I have a basic but lovely Acer 27”  monitor. Really my favorite part of my work set up is my custom WASD mechanical keyboard… it’s so fun to use!

I do a lot of work on my smartphone these days – Google Pixel 2 XL saves my life all the time and has an amazing camera for fun. But really handling docs and blogging on my phone is priceless. I’ve hired team members from my phone for Caldera – what a time to be alive.

Software – nothing too out of the ordinary. I use Atom for simple code editing and PHPStorm for heavier lifts.

Christie Chirinos

We want to say great thanks to Christie and wish her all the best of joy and inspiration!


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