The high school dropout story is often a cautionary tale, but for freelance WordPress developer Justin Sainton it’s worked out just fine. He quit high school early and got his GED so he could launch his own web development company, Zao. That was 2004 and he’s still going strong today.
His first web experience came in 1998 when he was 12: “I used Adobe GoLive and made $100 building a website for a skateboarding company,” he said. “At 12 years old that feels like you’re the richest guy in the world, so that planted the seed in me that I could do this web thing.” That early web entrepreneurship sounds like the stories we championed in our free Kids Creating Stuff Online ebook.
Justin completely bypassed college and hasn’t looked back. He got into WordPress in 2007 and today specializes in ecommerce. We talked with Justin about building a company, a legacy and all things WordPress:
How did you pick up knowledge—whether it was coding or business—without going to school?
As the WordPress community has grown, one of the most massively helpful things to make up for that lack of formal education is being in the trenches with a bunch of other people doing the same thing, many of whom are further down the road than I am. Being able to glean from others, like Cory Miller at iThemes, Chris Lema and others—that’s way more valuable to me than any kind of schooling.
What’s the coolest thing you’ve done with WordPress?
I consulted on a project that was really interesting recently. In New York there’s this pastry that’s become viral: a Cronut™. It’s a mix between a croissant and a donut. It’s a huge deal there, with lines outside the store. It’s been on Good Morning America.
They needed an ecommerce solution to allow people to preorder Cronuts™. They sell 300 a day, and they sell out. The website goes down every time. We consulted to make the site not die when they sell 300 of these Cronuts™ over 30 seconds. That was a really interesting challenge and a fun thing to consult on.
And no, I didn’t get any Cronuts™. They don’t keep well flying across the country.
A lot of freelancers name their companies after themselves. Can you tell us about the name Zao and why you didn’t name the company after yourself?
The name was kind of a dual focus. It’s a Greek word and Chinese word. I spent a year in China when I was 14 and 15. In Greek it means living water. I became a Christian when I was 16, so it was an important part of that process.
From the beginning I never intended Zao to be just myself. I never had any desire to be JustinSainton.com or even Justin Design Group or whatever. I always had the vision of building something that could outlive myself. Even from 16 and 17 on I had this idea of legacy. The legacy I want to leave, the legacy I want to build.
As a 16-year-old I thought what are my grandkids’ grandkids’ grandkids going to know about me and how are they going to be affected by me? How do I build for that today? Justin Sainton Media Group, that was never a way to build that legacy. So that was part of the company brand.
Wow. How many 16-year-olds are thinking about legacy?
I don’t know. I know guys in their 60s who don’t think that way, so I don’ know if it’s experience or what. I’ve been living away from my parents since I was 15, so you have to grow up a little quicker, you have to think longer term. For me that was a big part of coming into Christianity. It’s how I see God thinking—he’s a very long-term thinker. Some of it was rooted in that. To be honest, I don’t really know.
Well it’s impressive. WordPress is definitely a legacy, so it’s important for us to be thinking that way. Where do you see WordPress going in the future?
I think the advent of the JSON API that’s coming in WordPress 4.1 will be a seismic shift in the WordPress ecosystem. When you have something like WordPress that runs nearly a quarter of the Internet and you put an API that allows data portability and integration—now you have Rails shops and .NET shops with access to this area of the Internet. That’s game changing.
You brought on your first employee this year. How did you know you were ready?
I hired my first person in 2009, and I made the mistake of hiring for sales. I thought that was a great call—let me focus on what I like, and someone else could handle sales. But it never worked out. The mistake I made was to hire sales out, instead of doing it myself as the person who knows what we’re selling and what we can do.
So now, fast forward five years, and we’ve hired Liz. She’s amazing. She doesn’t do sales—she does development, onboarding and admin. The reason I think it’s worked well this time around is that it still lets me focus on what I like to do. Now we’re in a place where sales come in at a much higher volume and quality. Five years ago I felt like we really needed someone pounding the pavement and bringing leads in. Now we have the experience to know what we actually need.
How did going from a solo shop to having employees change things?
You spend more time teaching and managing. When you go from one to two, you’re essentially cutting back the work you do by 25% and spending a good quarter of your time mentoring, teaching and training.
I have no ambition to grow to a 20- or 30- or 40-person company, I’ve always been very happy with the idea of a small team, like 5 to 8 people. That’s the vision we have. At the rate we’re going that may take 60 years.
It changes some things for sure. I have to be more intentional about my time. I have less ability to just have my head stuck in the code than I used to. You have someone else you’re responsible for both financially and making sure they’re having a happy work experience. You have to communicate early and often, really over-communicate. It’s a learning process.
What have you found to be the most effective way to bring in business?
For me the most effective method has really been focus. Honestly, those first two years, even four years, I was very generalized. I could do anything and everything and I was OK at it. I wasn’t known for anything.
But now I have all this background in ecommerce. That was one of the first projects we did. I really started focusing on WordPress and ecommerce. I contributed to WP eCommerce. I contributed to some open source projects. I became known in the community as an ecommerce guy, so when someone needs an ecommerce project they know who to go to.
The number one way to bring in business is to focus on something. If I say I’m a plugin developer or a theme designer, well everybody develops plugins and makes themes. If you need a high scale ecommerce website or custom work for WP eCommerce, or you’re having trouble with a caching strategy for an ecommerce plugin—even in that specific focus, there are guys like Daniel Espinoza for ecommerce or Curtis McHale if you need a membership site [check out our interview with Curtis McHale from earlier this year]. Even just focusing within the focus, becoming well known for a niche has been helpful.
Any last insights for freelancers?
When people are starting out and ask me for tips, there are three things I tell them:
- Figure out what you want to focus on and become the absolute best at it. It could be as general as a go-to guy for low-level ecommerce, or I want to be the expert for WooCommerce membership sites that use PayPal. Build and position yourself. Focus. Focus on systems, on personal disciplines, on your business—focus in general is huge.
- Find a mentor. Find someone who is where you want to be in 10 years. Buy them coffee, take them out to lunch, ask for their counsel. Ask them to look at the way you’re doing it and give you advice. I have several people who I consider mentors. The only reason I never went to school is because I’ve had mentors who have provided that counsel and I’ve benefited from their experience. It’s been invaluable.
- Structure. Spend time working on your business, not just in it. Read the business books on your mentor’s Amazon wishlists, as well as everything they recommend. Read The eMyth Revisited. Even if you’re a freelancer, you’re running a business.