Nick Schaferhoff, Editor in Chief of WebsiteSetup.org, a well-known WordPress expert, blogger, online marketer, and Internet entrepreneur got in an exclusive interview with Kunal Tatiya, Manager, Growth and Development, Metagauss.
Know what market insights and fun stories he shared with Kunal during this interview!
Thanks, Nick, for joining us for this interview. Without further ado, here are the questions:
Kunal: Can we start with your introduction! Please tell us about yourself. We would love to know how was your journey from Quality Assurance to being the Editor in Chief of WebsiteSetup.org?
Was there a particular event – sort of watershed moment – when you decided to switch profiles, or you always wanted to do what you are doing now?
Nick Schaferhoff: Hello and first let me say thank you so much for asking me to this interview. I feel really honoured and I am happy to be answering your questions.
It’s true that my career hasn’t been the most straightforward. After university, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with my life and I also felt that the university hadn’t really prepared me for any sort of specific career. While thinking about what to do, I read Tim Ferriss’ 4-Hour-Workweek and decided I wanted to learn how to earn money online and be location independent. The idea of working on my own time and having the freedom to pursue meaningful activities really appealed to me.
The first thing I did to get closer to this goal was to found a startup for vegan sports nutrition. I created a protein powder from scratch and sold it online. Because I was bootstrapping, I had to learn how to build a website, which is how I first got into WordPress. I also started blogging, doing social media, and learning online marketing in order to promote the product. All of this pretty much out of necessity.
Funny enough, because I also needed to do the shipping and store the merchandise by myself, I actually tethered myself to my product. So much for location independence.
After two years, the startup folded but all the skills I learned stayed with me. Because I enjoyed building and marketing websites, I decided to start doing that full time. I got a part-time marketing/web design job that I could do remotely and spent the next two years building my skills and portfolio, then went self-employed full time in 2015. I have been working on my own terms ever since.
So, to answer your question, there wasn’t really this one watershed moment. I found a lifestyle goal that appealed to me and then experimented with different approaches until I found something that worked for me to pursue.
So, you seem fairly into China! Be it their culture, language, your master’s degree in China studies, or be it Inter:Culture: Capital – Germany’s leading blogs on China that gets picked up by major media outlets. Tell us how this connection started?
Nick Schaferhoff: Well, again it’s a bit like the above. I was a little directionless after high school so I signed up to university just to be doing something.
One of the courses that were easiest to get into was China studies. I went to the orientation class and right afterwards had my first Chinese language course. I really love learning languages, so I was like “why not learn Chinese, there seems to be a lot of future in it”. So, I stuck with that, which also led me to live in Beijing for a year.
The Inter:Culture: Capital blog I started with a friend from university (we were also roommates in China). I was into building websites, he was really knowledgeable about intercultural communication and we both studied Chinese, so it seemed like a good fit. Over time, I have disentangled myself from that project to pursue other things, however, to this day I am quite proud that I was there to start it off.
You have been in the content writing space for so long now. You have written a huge amount of content for yourself, your clients, your magazine, blogging websites, and even for your own website. And it gives you the opportunity to interact with so many people through your writing.
What was the high point of your writing career so far? Perhaps, moving feedback from a reader or appreciation from a quarter you least expected it to come from, anything which deepened the sense of satisfaction you extract from your work.
Nick Schaferhoff: One of the high points was surely when I realized that I could live off of writing. At that time, I had been grinding at it for a couple of years, honing my craft, finding clients, slowly raising my rates. When I let go of steady employment and saw that I landed on my feet, that was quite exhilarating. I am still immensely grateful to have the opportunity to do what I do. I often say to people that I get paid for work that I would happily do for free and I am quite aware that this is an enviable position to be in.
Aside from that, my main motivation is to help others. I always strive to put as much value as possible into my content, look at problems from several angles, and try to provide multi-faceted solutions to them. My goal is always to create blog posts in a way that helps users of any level. Nobody should walk away confused or frustrated. I want readers to feel enabled to achieve their goals or solve their problems. When I get feedback that shows me that I am doing a good job at that and people tell me that I have helped them, it gives me a lot of satisfaction.
Now, content can be of various types, social media content, advertising content, there is technical content, and of course, blogs.
Talking about blogs, with so much publishing activity going on, how do you keep incoming ideas fresh and unique, without worrying about overlapping similar ideas or getting bogged down? Do bloggers also suffer from Writer’s Block? If yes, what’s your advice to overcome that?
Nick Schaferhoff: Bloggers definitely suffer from writer’s block like everyone else. However, in contrast to, say, fiction writers, we are lucky that we don’t really have to create something from nothing. Most of the time, we write about things that already exist in the real or virtual world and our job is to arrange and process existing information in a way that it is easy to consume, understand, and connect with. That’s different than creating a character arc or something where you have to come up with the entire thing yourself.
For me personally, I think I avoid running out of ideas because I write a lot about things that I am interested in myself. I really like learning stuff and use blogging also as a means to broaden my horizon on things that I want to know more about.
Aside from that, I try to stay up to date on what is happening in my industry and, from there, I often find topics to sink my teeth into because I want to learn more about them. Both of these are also things that I recommend for overcoming writer’s block.
Plus, I don’t worry too much about overlap. Everything is sort of connected anyway and there are few completely original ideas out there. Most things are just remixes of stuff that already exists in one form or another. So, I think it’s unhelpful to put too much pressure on yourself in this regard.
Since you produce so much content, do you have a favorite app or tool, for organizing all your drafts, notes, and ideas?
Something that assists you in the creative process, right down to final publishing. What would you like to recommend to the new generation of bloggers?
Nick Schaferhoff: I mostly write directly in WordPress, so that’s one of my favorite tools and also where I do my research, drafting, and editing. I also recommend using XAMPP and Local (formerly Local by Flywheel) to create local development environments. I use local WordPress installations a lot for testing themes, plugins, and features that I write about and I also have local sites where I pre-write articles when I am travelling or have no Internet connection for some other reason.
As for organization, my main tool here is Evernote. It’s where I collect topic ideas, notes, and keep track of almost everything business-related. I also have a Moleskin daily planner in which I write down and cross out my weekly and daily to-do lists. Plus, I use Toggl for time tracking, since I work mostly in 20-minute sprints (see Pomodoro Technique if you want to learn more about that). The latter also helps me keep track of my work time for projects where I get paid by the hour.
Overall, I keep it pretty lean, which is what I would also recommend to new bloggers. I personally hate having my information spread out through a multitude of tools and places and try to centralize everything as much as possible. That way, I don’t have to chase anything down from different corners of my life.
Let’s talk about the future of content writing. With AI and similar tech catching up, how do you see content writing evolving in near future?
Do you see AI playing an important role in the whole process of content creation or is it still too far away to talk about it right now?
Nick Schaferhoff: That is a very good question. I think the first thing we will see is that AI will increasingly take on menial tasks. For example, I know that there are already machines writing certain types of content like results of sporting matches. Stuff that can be a bit more formulaic and where algorithms can use a lot of pre-written phrases and then fill in information like dates, scores, etc. I think this type of application will only increase.
I also think there will be a lot more AI-driven tools to support and improve the writing process. Be it finding images, analyzing tone and sentiment, checking search engine optimization, proofreading, etc. – there are a lot of application possibilities here. Access to this kind of stuff will make the lives of writers a lot easier.
However, I think it will still be a while before AI becomes truly creative. For example, if you look at a blog like Copyblogger (which you should), these guys write beautifully and not only deliver valuable information but also really invest a lot in how they present it in words. I think it will still take quite some time before machines catch up to that level. Same with novels. I think we still have to wait a few years before a machine can write the next Harry Potter.
As we all know, you publish “a fair share of WordPress tutorials” on your blog, and you help businesses to stand out online.
From all the experience you have had with marketing and WordPress websites, what is the one most common marketing mistake that WordPress website owners make?
Nick Schaferhoff: I think a lot of people simply underestimate what it takes to run a website. Building and marketing a successful site takes a ton of effort, especially since the standards have gotten a lot higher over time. It’s not enough to simply have a site and post on social media every once in a while. You need to have a plan, you need to have a strategy, and you need to educate yourself on what it means to have a high-quality website. You need to do SEO, optimize your site speed, create good content, etc., etc. It really is a lot of work. So, I think one of the biggest mistakes that I see people do is to go at it half-heartedly and then be surprised when success manifest.
Secondly, realize it’s not about you. I think too many people get caught up in showing off instead of thinking about their clients, customers, and audience. Your goal should always be to create more value for them. Those are the people you work for. Blogging or running a website isn’t Instagram. You’re not supposed to brag, you’re supposed to show how you help others. Sure, it’s fine to make your credentials clear so that others trust what you say. However, aside from that, make it about other people, not yourself.
WordPress being your CMS of choice, what is one missing feature you feel should be shipped as part of core WordPress in the future?
Nick Schaferhoff: I think the media library could use an overhaul. When your site reaches a certain size, it can become a bit clunky to use and hard to keep track of everything in it. I think it could use some functionality to help keep files in order like the ability to create folders, additional filter options, or similar things.
I also have some smaller requests for the Gutenberg editor, especially additional keyboard shortcuts. However, overall I am actually quite satisfied with WordPress.
You have your list of 35+ marketing tools that you personally use. Now, which are the 5 WordPress plugins that you find essential for developing almost every type of WordPress website?
Nick Schaferhoff: Oh man, you’re putting me on the spot right now. One plugin that I install on pretty much every website is Yoast SEO. It has been my go-to SEO plugin for years and I really like it, especially the content analysis features. However, I am also currently testing a number of other SEO plugins to see what else is out there. A lot has happened in the WordPress SEO plugin sphere over the last years and I am trying to get myself up to date. I might even write a post about that on my own website.
Other plugins that I use very often are Autoptimize, which I really like, Antispam Bee, Duplicator, or alternatively, Updraft Plus, and the Redirection plugin. I also want to give a shoutout to Simple Post Notes, which is a tiny plugin that allows you to leave comments to yourself for every post and page. It’s great to keep track of to-do lists for each piece of content (even if it hasn’t been updated in a while).
The latest news from WordPress is that it has started offering Website Development. What’s your take on it?
Also, what do you think is the future of WordPress with newer technologies like AI evolving all around us, and the competition it faces from Wix, Squarespace, Duda, etc.?
Nick Schaferhoff: I assume you are talking about the move by WordPress.com and Automattic. Overall, I think this step was sort of inevitable. Websites are becoming everyday commodities that a lot of people need and I think there will be more and more offers for standardized processes to create them. However, I still think there is enough work to go around for independent developers who might also cater to people who need more customized solutions.
How do I see the future of WordPress? Actually, David Lockie gave a very interesting talk about this at the virtual WordCamp Europe 2020 that I agree with wholeheartedly. Like everything else in the virtual world, WordPress will see increasing integration with AI technology in the future. Whether that will be for good or for worse is something that’s up to us as a community to steer. Yet, overall, I would say it’s an inevitable development. AI and machine learning are slowly creeping into more parts of our lives and it’s up to us as humans to decide how we are going to use it, whether in WordPress or outside of it.
As for the competition, I am not too worried. First of all, the trend for WordPress usage has only been going up and I haven’t seen any significant slowdown to that yet.
Secondly, I think that WordPress and solutions like Wix or Squarespace address different target groups. I think a lot of WordPress users come to the platform because of the flexibility and control. With a self-hosted WordPress site, there is very little you can not do because you can tinker with literally every part of your site, for better or for worse.
In contrast to that hosted solutions are much more closed systems. You are more limited in what you can do and in the extent to which you can customize your site and that is fine. I think these platforms are a godsend for people who just want a way to design a website without having to deal with all the technical stuff, hosting, or any of the other things that can make building a website a bit of a headache. So, I think all of these different services have a justification for their existence and it’s not necessarily an either/or question but one of both/and.
It was a pleasure having you in conversation with us Nick!