Cory Miller Interview – Reflections on WordPress and Gutenberg, the Necessity of Mental Health Awareness, and Coaching

Cory Miller Interview

It’s been a while since we hosted an interview on CodeinWP. This time, I’m talking to one of the business veterans in the WordPress community, founder of iThemes, Cory Miller. Cory is an outspoken guy and we manage to touch ground on three very hot subjects these days: themes, mental health and coaching.

For those who don’t know, iThemes was one of the first theme shops to exist, launched in 2008, and hitting 1M revenue in 3 years. Ten years after, his business was acquired by Liquid Web in a successful exit. We’re talking a bit about theme businesses today and where Gutenberg is taking them.

Not sure you’ve noticed, but the WordPress community is opening up to subjects outside the tech realm. At last year’s WordCamp Bucharest happening in my city, Emanuel Blagonic’s talk was called “How to Find Peace and Change the World.” Three years before that, at WordCamp Denver, Cory talked about “The Emotional Roller Coaster of Entrepreneurship.” People are speaking up openly about their struggles and, in doing so, they help others acknowledge their problems, get help and get better.

Cory Miller

Next, we’re discussing the subject of mental health and Cory’s involvement in the WP&UP initiative. Lastly, we enter the realm of entrepreneurship, and where Cory puts his energy these days. When he’s not giving interviews, Cory is part of two new ventures, one does coaching and the other one marketing. He’s also active on YouTube and reads LOTS of books.

Okay, let’s jump into the conversation.

After you’re done reading this Cory Miller interview, I’d be curious who you’d like us to interview next. Leave your hero’s name in the comments below.

Cory Miller interview on WordPress findings of over a decade

You’ve started one of the first themes shops, almost 11 years ago. Could you talk a bit about the biggest challenges/milestones you’ve been through with iThemes during this period?

You know, when I look back about our time with iThemes, the highest highs, the lowest lows were always around people. The lows were when you had to say goodbye to a team member or had to let them go. Those are always the lowest moments. And then, of course, customers don’t always act in the most appropriate manner, especially if something goes wrong. So the lows are always about people.

But, on the other side, the highs were definitely all about people. I left there earlier this year, but I savor friendships and relationships with some amazing people. Among all the people I got to meet through doing business, customers, friends and partners, I love and appreciate and consider some best friends in life.

What was the good and bad of the WordPress ecosystem back then, and where do the good and bad reside now?

Back then it was definitely the Wild Wild West. In 2006, WordPress themes in particular were all over the place. I mean their quality, you got some good, some bad and some just terrible.

But that was the opportunity we took advantage of. We started serving customers with very good high quality themes. But the good back then was the opportunity we had and this amazing software we had. And, from a business standpoint, obviously WordPress changed my life, being able to start iThemes and take the ride that we did for over 10-11 years.

WordPress has now matured. It’s different. I’ve seen some faces come and some faces go and new people always showing up into the community, which is so awesome. Business wise, I see a lot of consolidation within the industry, particularly with hosting companies. Automattic has received a very large round of funding recently. Now I’m excited just as a WordPress blogger. I’ve added a new title, “WordCamp Volunteer” to my resume at WC DFW over the weekend. I’m excited to see what comes next for WordPress in business, as the software continues to mature and get better.

As WordPress is turning into a site builder, themes as we know them are also transforming. What is your advice for theme shops today to remain in the business?

What a great question. I think it really wasn’t the theme shop that we sold. About two, three years into the business, we realized that the opportunity was better in plugins and particularly software as a service related to WordPress. We quickly saw the themes were hyper-competitive.

Advice now would be to hop on the Gutenberg train. It’s here, whether we like it or not. I’ve been dabbling with it and it’s really interesting. I see a lot of things coming out with Gutenberg. So if you’re a theme shop and haven’t embraced it, it’s the present and the future of WordPress.

What are the opportunities WordPress businesses can unlock in the long term?

The opportunity is always, always, always: stay close to your customers and look ahead to them. Take care of your customers.

Our thing was, no matter what happens in WordPress, we want our customers to be loyal to us. To be served extremely well that if we happen to not be there one day, they would miss us. We’ve tried every way we could to make their lives better. And I think that’s good advice for any WordPress businesses: stay close to your customers. Kind of like Wayne Gretzky’s quote, his success was that he skated to where the puck would be, not to where it had been. The same advice can be given to WordPress businesses.

On mental health in the WordPress community

Let’s move on to the subject of mental health. You’ve talked about your personal struggles at WordCamp US in 2015. Do you know of other communities that are as open about this topic?

You know, I think tech as a whole seems to be more open to discussion about mental health than other industries. Tech seems to be leading the change, and I’m really happy about that. I’m not aware of a lot of other communities outside of WordPress. But WordPress in particular, I think, has really led the way and embraced being able to share openly about mental health.

A big segment of our community works remotely, so there’s an isolation effect. I think in life in general it’s absolutely pertinent to talk about mental health.

You’re putting yourself out there, talking, blogging, being open about your personal life with complete strangers. Was this something you chose to do as a healing process? How has this changed your life?

In 2015, I submitted a talk titled “Entrepreneurship and Mental Health” to WordCamp Denver. They graciously allowed me to speak about that. I chose that not as part of the healing process. That’s what I believe you do in private, with trusted people. Publicly I shared it to end stigma of mental health, to eradicate, obliterate, annihilate the stigma about mental health from the earth forever, to be a part of that process, to say it’s okay to seek out and get help privately from people you trust, particularly professional, licensed therapists.

I was suffering in solitude and hadn’t reached out to the closest people in my life. Being able to reach out to your core network of people, the people that run in when everything hits the fan while everybody else rushes out. That was part of my story that I shared. And so I share ringing that bell as loudly and as often as I’m asked.

You’ve joined the WP&UP team who is providing mental and physical health support. Why is there a need for such an organization to exist within the WordPress community?

I was asked over the summer to be a trustee. I love to be a part of any organization or effort that is doing good in the mental health space. I’m part of WP&UP because I want to be a part of the positive change that can happen in people’s lives. But I believe it does need to exist within the community because we have humans in the community. We hurt, we go through tons of crisis, difficulty, seasons of life, and we’re not immune to that. And so I love that there’s a particular effort in WordPress to help WordPress community members, particularly with mental health.

What online resources would you recommend to someone dealing with mental health issues in solitude?

The biggest thing I would say is be wary of social media. I don’t personally think it’s the proper venue to find healing. So even though I share my story publicly, it’s for the express purpose to end the stigma and to help get permission and release people to go seek support and help privately. And by the way, I’m telling you a story that happened years ago, not my current day struggles, that’s a big nuance. So be wary. I don’t think you find healing through social media. I think you find healing through humans and people that care and trust and love you privately and through licensed professional counselors.

I believe we’re meant and built to live in community together, not in isolation. And I love my solitude, don’t get me wrong. But I believe fundamentally that we’re built for community, to be around people. We need human interaction, human touch, human conversation. Somebody that cares about us and what we’re going through and will be there when we hurt.

WP&UP is one resource I would suggest.

Cory Miller on the present – running, digital marketing, and consulting

You recently said, “I don’t have hobbies, the hobby is the business.” Do you think this is what defines an entrepreneur?

I don’t think so. I’m just saying that’s my particular thing, and I don’t think it’s always been a good thing, by the way. I just happened to find this awesome video game, the best video game I could ever play, called entrepreneurship and loved playing the game. However, the downside of not having hobbies is when you go through transition like I have, specifically, selling my startup baby and the difficulties of not having that anymore.

I’m a big believer in diversifying your identity, diversifying the ways you find value in your life. If I’d had something like a side business, or even a pretty big hobby to kind of jump into when I left the business, I think it would have been better for me.

The hobby I now have is called exercise. Running – I found that two years ago. It helps my mental health, it helps my mood, it helps my spirit.

How would you describe the work you are doing now? Who are the people that could benefit most from working with you?

Leader.team is where my partner Jeff and I are facilitating small groups to help leaders learn and grow. We’re putting peer leaders together in a small group that meets online via Zoom once a month for 90 minutes. Both Jeff and I have been a part of similar groups like this for nine years. It’s how we met, how we became dear friends and now partners. And so we’ve taken the best of that magic and built a really unique format for young leaders that want to learn and grow from each other.

The second is coming out pretty soon, it’s Digital Marketing Kitchen with my dear friend Rebecca Gill. She is an SEO expert for over 11 years. One of the things that was my focus beyond product was marketing, specifically content and email marketing. So we’re pairing together to offer a course very soon. You can sign up and we’re gonna have a great community there that’s going to be awesome. So those two projects are the two big ones in my life right now.

Are you still attending WordCamps? Do you plan to go beyond the WordPress community with your consulting business?

I just went to my first WordCamp this year, WC Dallas Fort Worth. I have been to probably 50 WordCamps over the last 11-12 years. Now, I don’t have or need to go to build even more relationships, it’s not part of the core thing right now. But when I get asked to speak, I love to attend. I want to say I’ll always love WordPress or always be a part of the WordPress community but, yes, I am broadening now, and the things I’m trying to do now apply even beyond WordPress.

If being well is all that matters, what is the value of a personal coach that adds to the value of a therapist?

I believe part of the role of a therapist is looking to the past. Seeing if there’s trauma in your past and healing some of the past things that affect you now and to the future. Professional counselors are absolutely key. I think that’s one part of the equation.

The other part that you’ve mentioned, I think is so awesome, is a personal coach. I’ve had a personal coach for the last year. A coach is looking at the future with you, helping you get to where you’re trying to go, clear and confidently, and making great progress on that. A coach is about what’s ahead of you that you want to get to. My coach’s name is Kelly and she’s fantastic. Helping me think through things, having somebody to bounce things off and challenging me where I need to be challenged, supporting and encouraging me, where I need to be supported and encouraged. I told somebody the other day, if I could have anything for the world, it’d be two things: access to a coach and access to a counselor.

That’s about it for our Cory Miller interview. Is there anything you’d like to ask him? Who knows, he might come back and reply to your comments. Thanks for reading!

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