For Wil Brown, WordPress is a community as much as a CMS


Arriving in Sydney in 2012, Wil Brown immediately found his place in the local WordPress community. Today he’s organising meetups and WordCamps, educating developers, and developing bespoke sites.

Talking with Wil Brown, you instantly appreciate that he has lived and breathed WordPress for the bulk of the CMS’s existence. And he doesn't see it just as a technical system. For Wil, WordPress is as much about people as it is about websites.

He is enthusiastic, deeply knowledgeable, and humorous. He’s a natural sharer, too. Conversation is a chance for him to learn something, and to leave you smarter than you were. The half-hour that we spent with him flew by.

18 years with WordPress

Wil’s WordPress story starts in 2006. It was a slower-evolving system back then - in fact, there wasn’t a single WordPress release all year (version 2.0 introduced rich editing on 31 December 2005, and v2.1 followed with spell checking and auto-save in January 2007). Perhaps the biggest landmark that year was the first ever WordCamp conference, in San Francisco, which signalled a serious step up in WordPress community-building.

Meanwhile thousands of miles away in Edinburgh, Scotland, Wil Brown was comparing CMSs including Silverstripe, Drupal, and Joomla as client work came in.

"I like doing high-end, customisable, bespoke websites. When someone first approaches me, I talk about you: What do you need to do? What are you connecting to? What's your plan for the next six to 12 months?"

“I actually put my eggs into the Joomla basket first. A company that published three glossy magazines every month wanted three websites to mirror those magazines. So I created them in Joomla 1.5, and then I had to teach the editorial staff how to update the website. Back then, Joomla was not user friendly at all. It had me banging my head against the wall. It took longer to train them up than to actually create the three websites.”

Almost 20 years later, Wil still remembers the pain of digging through Joomla menus just to do simple things like edit the site title. Coincidently, in the middle of teaching new users how to wrestle with this unfriendly CMS, he got a well-timed look at how much easier WordPress was.

“I spun up someone else’s project in WordPress and said, ‘I’ve not got any time to train you until I finish this Joomla training’. I came back after two or three weeks and they were fine! They were already creating content, editing menus, and doing all sorts of stuff,” Wil says.

That was enough to make a big decision. “WordPress all the way! I got the Joomla 1.5 training guide that I had printed out, and I threw it in the bin.”

Fast forward to 2024 and Wil is in a position where he can focus on more complex development projects.

“I like doing high-end, customisable, bespoke websites. If someone's looking for a cheaper blog or a three or four page website, I'm probably not the person. So I'll hand that over to other WordPress people in Sydney. We're a pretty generous community when we don't have capacity or a project needs a particular skill set.” he says.

You’re in a good place when you have a say over which clients you’ll work with. Wil starts by leaving WordPress to one side and looking at the bigger picture.

“When someone first approaches me, I rarely talk about WordPress. Instead I talk about you: What do you want? What do you need to do? What are you connecting to? What's your plan for the next six to 12 months? You need to make your clients feel confident that you know your stuff, that you are willing to understand the business, and that you understand their strategy and how to implement it.

“It's only when we get down to the proposal level that I'll mention WordPress,” Wil says.

This story gives us two conversational threads to pull on. There’s the local WordPress community which is close enough to share leads. Wil’s a key part of that, as an organiser of Meetups and WordCamp conferences. But first, let’s talk WordPress development.

A solid, reusable WordPress implementation

When he’s wearing his developer hat, Wil usually operates solo these days. In the past he’s remotely employed other developers but the experience of managing others was, in his brief description, “mixed”.

Man wearing a WordPress t-shirt while sitting at a desktop typing.

"WordPress all the way!" (Image by Fikret tozak on Unsplash.)

Now, he says, “I'll bring in a designer or copywriter if I need to, and I've got a few contacts in Sydney that I’ll reach out to, but I generally do most of the dev on my own.”

So, how does he build? Obviously every website is different, but he has a standard WordPress implementation.

“I use my go-to stack of GenerateBlocks and the GeneratePress theme if the client is tech savvy. You get a real speed benefit from GeneratePress, but because it relies on the block editor they need to understand how that stuff works,” Wil says.

He’s a fan of the block editor, which he admits is a bit controversial. Unlike some other longstanding WordPress fans, he reckons that its functionality outweighs the block editor’s difficult UI and UX - in most cases at least.

“If I have a not-so-technical client, I'll go with the Hello theme and Elementor Pro to drag and drop stuff. It's super easy to use and I don't need to train people on using it. It's a bit clunkier, but if you want to just drag-and-drop you’ve got to expect some sort of give. Bricks is starting to look like an awesome competitor to Elementor as well, so I've got my eye on that,” Wil says.

Whichever stack he chooses for each client, he has a set of plugins that are almost guaranteed to be part of the final build:

  • Gravity Forms Pro.
  • Advanced Custom Fields Pro.
  • Anti-Spam by CleanTalk (“Just fantastic - I've never had to deal with spam since.”)
  • The free version of Wordfence.
  • SEOPress (“But Rank Math is coming up fast.”)
  • Yoast Duplicate Post (“I have no idea where that's not in core!”)

(Image by justin_morgan on Unsplash.)

It’s a set that Wil reckons can cover 90% of the stuff any site needs to do, and he’s very loyal to it. The SEO component has been most changeable. Yoast ruled the roost until it started charging for add-ins like WooCommerce compatibility (the introduction of “all those primary colours” didn’t help, either). Now SEOPress might be toppled soon. Wil’s been watching Rank Math since 2021, when he ran SEO sessions for small business owners. “I got all these questions about Rank Math, so I looked into it and even did a whole webinar on using it. Now I'm questioning whether I should move to it.”

Related article: Stand out with these SEO basics for WordPress beginners

No matter who you talk to about using WordPress, there’s always the caveat that it’s impossible to know everything.

Wil says, “Ten years ago if you knew HTML, CSS, and procedural PHP, you could build anything and say, ‘yeah, I know WordPress’. Now, not so much. There's so many different components of WordPress. There’s React, NodeJS, a whole heap of stuff. To know everything would blow your brain!”

That’s one reason why he also works with other developers as a consultant and trainer - growing the field by adding to other people’s knowledge, confident that there’s always room for more experts.

Performance and optimisation

There has long been a perception that WordPress is great for creating slow websites. Having spent nearly two decades building and optimising WordPress, Wil understands where that comes from, and how to disprove it.

“A multitude of things can slow WordPress down. I think the idea that ‘WordPress is slow’ exists because the majority of users start off on a very cheap stack. You’ll grab a $5-a-month service from GoDaddy or Bluehost - the cheapest possible because you don't have a business of paying clients. Then you install 100 plugins, just because you can, and it all drags the experience down.”

“It's like when PowerPoint first came out with word art and people just went absolutely crazy - purple slides with spinning stuff all over them. Just because it's there, you don't have to use it!”

Wil shakes his head.

“Then people step back and say, ‘why is my website slow??’”

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Without bargain-bin hosting, and when not weighed down by sundry plugins, WordPress is ripe for more sophisticated optimisation.

“In general you can apply best practice to performance by choosing a really top web host, by only using plugins that you need (not huge plugins where you’re using two out of a thousand features), by having a software caching plugin that you’ve optimised - there's lots of settings in those - and by using a CDN like Cloudflare. These can all speed things up.” Wil says.

Your choice of theme can have a big effect too: “I prefer the lightweight simplicity of GeneratePress and Hello to big heavy-hitters like Avada and Astra, which have everything in there for people to switch on and use.”

With your WordPress infrastructure set up to perform, the site itself will offer more opportunities to tune things. The methods to use and the pay-off to expect will change site-by-site, but Wil gives one example. “There are simple things like not using PNGs or JPEGs, but moving to WebP. WebP images give a 30% reduction in most cases over JPEG,” he says.

Community-building around the world

Wil’s cornerstone contribution to the WordPress community in Sydney, and Australia, has roots on the other side of the planet.

“In 2010, my wife and I moved from Edinburgh to Dublin. Spinning up a business in Scotland had been difficult because I didn’t have a mentor and I didn't really understand the community. I'd been to a couple of meetups but they weren't huge things. When I got to Dublin I understood that a new business needed that community and networking. So the first thing I did was look for ways to plug myself in and get to know people. There was no WordPress meetup, so I started Dublin WordPress. I was surprised how quickly and big it grew,” Wil says.

“I kicked things off in a local pub and four or five people came along. After a year about 20 or 30 people were arriving at the pub, and it was getting a little bit too big. So we got a sponsor and a venue, and moved to monthly presentations or talks. When I left after about two years there were 30 or 40 people every month. It was good. I’m in touch with some of the organisers and they’re still going. They still do the pub meetup once in a while, too.”

In 2012 Wil swapped Dublin for Sydney, arriving with a good idea of how to get established in a new home. Even better, there was already a meetup waiting for him.

“The first week I was in Sydney, I attended the WordPress meetup! I knew to just get in there chatting, communicating, and finding people to network with. They’d started two years before, in 2010, and by the beginning of 2013 I was a co-organiser. It happened pretty quick,” Wil says.

Looking over his decade-plus helping run WordPress Sydney, nothing looms larger than covid. As well as temporarily halting in-person events, the pandemic prompted other co-organisers to re-evaluate their priorities and step back. With the whole group in flux, there wasn’t exactly a ready pool of replacements standing by.

No-one at WordCamp Brisbane, 2019, suspected that the conference was about to go into hibernation.

Wil's talk, Generating Leads, Getting Clients and Winning Proposals, is on the offical WordPress YouTube channel.

Wil says, “Automattic has put a lot of emphasis on Meetup revival post-pandemic. We're slowly rebuilding the community now. It's new people, new faces, and a new mix of skills for that. There were six people at the first in-person meetup we had back, and we’ve reached 20 again. Before covid we were doing meetups of around 50 or 60.”

Today people accept - or even expect - online events and recordings of presentations to catch in their own time. With the rise of working from home, fewer Sydney WordPress members are in the CBD on any given day. For some, that means avoiding a 90-minute commute. “There are valid reasons for people not wanting to come in for a one hour meetup, I can understand that,” Wil says.

Like almost any meetup anywhere, WordPress Sydney is working out how to fit its mix of professional development and social fun into life in 2024. There’s been a change in the makeup of the local WordPress workforce, as well. Wil says that agencies are growing while the number of freelance developers seems to be shrinking. That might change the way people work, but not the importance of knowing each other.

“I push the social and networking aspect of the Meetup, rather than just the talk,” Wil says.

In terms of popular topics, there’s been no real change in what people want to learn about. “It's still the same as before. Security, marketing, and beginners’ guides are big ones. And anything about SEO gets people there.”

Bringing WordCamps back to Australia

The bigger and more serious sibling of WordPress meetups is WordCamp. Or, rather, WordCamps. These conferences are a global phenomenon - the WordCamp Central website currently lists dozens of upcoming dates in five or six continents - and every one of them will be a very local thing.

Wil is busy putting together WordCamp Sydney, which will happen on November 2-3. It won’t be his first rodeo, but it has been a while. Last decade, Australia’s WordCamps were on a roll.

Wappu, WordCamp's globe-trotting mascot, is grabbing hold of Sydney again this November.

“Brisbane had an annual model - I think they did four in a row. In Sydney we were getting there, having done 2018 and 2019. Perth was spinning up, and it felt like there were WordCamps everywhere,” Wil says.

“But the last one was 2019. It's been five years, and Sydney 2024 is going to be the first WordCamp back since the pandemic. We've seen huge interest across Australia, but will that translate into ticket sales? We hope so, but we don’t know.

“I know people are thinking about doing WordCamps around Australia next year, but all eyes are on Sydney for now. We’re the test case, the canary being dangled down the hole to see what happens!”

Being part of the WordCamp camp, rather than a fully independent conference, Sydney’s organisers have enough support behind them to be able to take a bit of a risk.

“Events are good when they’re good, but when they're bad they’re really bad. If you’re organising your own conference and it's a disaster, for example a pandemic comes along, you’re stuffed! The big security that we have for running WordCamps is that Linux Australia is behind us for our insurance and liability, so if things go wrong they will cover us.

“We rely on sponsorship, too. There are big global sponsors like Jetpack, and their cash helps us put on the conference,” Wil says.

WordCamp Central maps out every upcoming WordCamp around the world.

In return for that security, the WordCamp name and structure come with requirements.

“WordCamps are special because it's a branded conference. There are lots of rules that come from the US. For example, we're not allowed to raise ticket prices above a certain level. They wanted $50, but they didn’t understand that the price of a beer here is twenty bucks! So we ended up with $70.”

Local sponsors are an important part of the mix as well, but this year that’s another unknown. “We don't know what the sponsorship field will be like. We just don't have the data. Are companies willing to do what they did with their cash for us before?”

While he waits to find out, Wil says, “We’re not so much on a tight budget as a really tight budget. People are amazed. Tickets include two full days of talks, morning and afternoon tea, lunch and a social evening for $70. That's just fantastic value for anyone.”

Another WordCamp requirement is to focus on local talent, which fits Sydney’s vibe well.

“Almost all our attendees are local Australians, with maybe 40% travelling interstate, so the local talent rule isn’t really much of an issue for us. We opened speaker applications a couple of weeks ago and there has been a trickle so far. Really we’re just getting the word out again, and hoping that we’ll prove that WordCamps are going to be viable again.”

Who is he hoping to see there? What sort of people is WordCamp Sydney designed to attract?

Wil laughs.

“Everyone! If you’ve even heard of WordPress you should attend. Even if you don't use WordPress, we'll have talks on more generic things like SEO and security, things that you can apply to anything, not just WordPress.

“It has to be broad now, because WordPress can be used in so many different circumstances. Of course there will be WordPress talks, but we're looking for new users and business owners as well. We plan to have enterprise and business talks, and things for creatives. Developers and designers obviously, but also copywriters, SEO-ists, anyone in the wider technology field. You'll all get something out of WordCamp Sydney.”

Such a wide range of topics to discuss is only fitting for the world’s most popular CMS. And a full house at WordCamp Sydney’s comeback event later this year would be a well-deserved result for the longstanding community organiser, consultant, and developer at the centre of it all.

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