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Zao: A Look Back at 2016

After a decade of work, 2016 was the best year Zao has had thus far.

Our small team more than doubled, we worked on several amazing projects, and we contributed back to open source, of course. Here’s a rundown of what we did and what we’re excited about moving forward.

A 2016 Retrospective

The Zao Team

Team Zao grew considerably in 2016 – we more than doubled our staff size and even found some incredible contractors who have been an integral part of our success.

Full-time Staff


In February, we hired Mihai Joldis as a full-time developer. Hailing from Romania, he leads the charge with many of our enhancements to WP eCommerce and is an invaluable engineer on many of our client projects as well. To top it all off, he provides excellent support to our growing customer base at  He is also one of the funniest people you’ll ever meet–humble, kind, and generous, too! All fantastic qualities that he’ll be putting to good use as he becomes a first-time dad in a few short months.

The Other Justin

In May, we hired Justin Sternberg as a lead developer, staff sergeant, managing partner, and all around excellent human being. He leads many of our agency projects; clients pretty much love him the moment they start working with him. After less than a year on our team, we can’t imagine life without him.



Late last year, we had the good fortune of finding Lizz Ehrenpreis. Lizz is the only reason you’re aware of who we are and can read these words without wanting to stab your eyes out. She’s an absolute wizard with content, incredibly disciplined, and pretty much the bee’s knees. Did I mention she plays the ukulele?


If you don’t know Jon, you should DEFINITELY know Jon. He’s a rock-solid developer who has been a massive help to Zao since Q4 last year. He’s been an integral part of helping us launch our own projects on budget, on time. If you’ve ever been tasked with finding GOOD developer contractors, you know how difficult it can be. If they’re solid engineers, they never communicate. If they communicate well, you’re constantly fixing code. Jon is the exception to that rule; he’s the real deal and we’re lucky to have him around.

Our work with Cancer Tutor

Cancer Tutor Logo

If you’ve been poking around our site for the last few weeks, you’ve already learned a little bit about Cancer Tutor and the work we’ve done for them already.

A brief synopsis of the work we did for them, from our portfolio:

Cancer Tutor worked with Zao on several different aspects of improving their site, ranging from eCommerce to solving complex technical hurdles. They wanted the ability to have member profiles that allowed their users to track and follow content from different authors, as well as create a notification center inside of WordPress without the overhead of something like BuddyPress.

Zao created a custom notification system built on a notifications component found in BuddyPress; we cribbed the component and integrated it with the REST API in WordPress. Now, users can follow categories and authors, and will get notified every time there is new content. This JavaScript intensive update also allows greater communication from Cancer Tutor admins, allowing them to send a notification to everyone in the system as desired.

The Cancer Tutor project was challenging and exciting to our team particularly because of how we utilized WordPress REST API.

The REST API and what it can do in WordPress are going to be a huge area of growth for us. It’s in WordPress core, and will become the primary way to solve a lot of technical problems. The custom notification system we built for Cancer Tutor required digging into how the REST API works.

The REST API touched almost everything we did on the Cancer Tutor site, from templating, to the way the notification system works, to the way that users are able to follow certain authors and forum posts or different categories. The site we built for Cancer Tutor is a user-centric, member-centric website, and all of that functionality is built on the REST API.

We dug into the internals to find best way for authentication, as well as how to manage users and notifications in a way that scales. We had to figure out how to build the site so that 50,000 users liking the same thing at the same time or sending out 100,000 notifications wouldn’t crash the server.

Working with the WordPress REST API

Working with the REST API fits nicely in our wheelhouse. Zao focuses on advanced problem solving with our clients; it’s something we enjoy and it’s where we really shine. Plus, it’s at an intersection with our specialty. Since we focus on eCommerce, there are loads of cool possibilities that come into play when sites can utilize the REST API.

Since the REST API is a major part of WordPress moving forward, we’ll see it utilized in a few different ways by many:

Single page applications

Instead of going to an eCommerce site that feels sluggish, we predict we’ll see more sites using an eCommerce theme with the REST API, which makes the site feel way faster. Obviously, anything that can make a site load faster is better for business; it’s a common vanity metric. Faster sites convert better.

Advanced technology for mom & pop shops

This is also going to provide opportunities for advanced technology to be utilized by smaller businesses. Maybe we’ll see programmable drones delivering from mom and pop shops, where the delivery address for an order that just came in can go through their site and directly to their delivery drone. Piece of cake.

Our work with Brooklyn Tweed

Brooklyn Tweed, Brooklyn Tweed website, Zao clients, sites on WordPress, WordPress developers, hire a WordPress developer, building a clothing store, eCommerce developers, e-commerce WordPress developers, using WordPress for e-Commerce

Cancer Tutor was our hare. Brooklyn Tweed is our tortoise.

Brooklyn Tweed is another excellent client of ours (we’re biased–all of our clients are excellent!). Zao is doing month to month work with them, which we love. Having long-lasting, ongoing relationships with our clients is satisfying. It may not be a gigantic project from the start (who doesn’t love landing a big check?), but it means that we get to work with them and steadily grow their business.

Longevity in our relationships gives us the opportunity to be a technical partner, rather than a one-off vendor. It requires us putting in some hard work upfront to build a foundation to what we always hope will become a fruitful relationship. It allows us to add real, measurable value to their business.

When we build a long term relationship with our clients, we have an impact on that business we’re not able to have otherwise. We can take their business to the next level, technically speaking, and work with their team to make sure their technology is scaling as it should, right alongside their sales.

Long-term clients allow us autonomy and creative license to do what we need to do. If we’re just a vendor pushing code, it turns into a different dynamic. Long-term partnership allows us to approach the relationship as a collaborative effort. We get to work alongside the client as their goals shift over time. We love that, and we’ll be looking for more of these kinds of opportunities in the future.

Open source efforts

Our open source efforts have been incremental, but solid, and you’ll see bigger changes to those things in 2017.


Since Justin Sternberg joined us in June 2016, a few notable changes have been made to CMB2, including:

A significant change came with 2.2.2, allowing you to now show your meta fields in the admin columns (on the post-listing screens).

And 2.2.3 was a major release, marking the addition of the CMB2 REST API, to neatly complement the new WordPress REST API. That means when you use a site with the REST API, you now have a way to interact with CMB2 data as well. This update also included something that has been asked for over and over again, which is making the WYSIWYG editor work properly within repeatable groups.

You can see all of the updates for the year on the CMB2 Github page.

Although CMB2 is still a WebDevStudios property, Justin’s passion for working on CMB2, as well as the shared commitment that both Zao and WebDevStudios have made to open source, means it’s still Justin’s baby. You’ll be seeing more work from him on that moving forward.

CMB2 Group Map

We created this CMB2 add-on for Brian Krogsgard and PostStatus. It allows users to use CMB2 group fields to manage custom post type entries, and is used on PostStatus to associate footnotes with notes.

WP eCommerce

WP eCommerce got some love this year, with three minor releases and eight core contributors working on the plugin. We continued significant development efforts for an upcoming 4.0 release. The 4.0 release has been in the works for the last five years! WPEC also strengthened partnerships with strategic partners like Paypal, Amazon, and TSYS ProPay.


Zao worked with GatherContent to release a major rewrite and many improvements to their GC integration plugin. While GatherContent is not an open-source platform, their WordPress plugin is open-sourced, available for collaboration, and offers benefits to open source in its availability and transparency.

Since Zao started working on the GatherContent WordPress plugin, there have been sixteen releases. The plugin is benefiting from active development, bug fixes, and feature updates. You can see the work we’ve done from versions 3.0.0 and up right here.

Sweet, sweet numbers

Zao plugin downloads in 2016: A whopping 504,855

When compared with 2015:

  • Analytics for WordPress downloads went up 5%
  • GatherContent’s plugin downloads went up 88%
  • CMB2 downloads went up 511%
  • Dsgnwrks Instagram Importer downloads went up 39%

Our revenue increase: 121.7%

Wow! These are the kind of numbers that make us feel good; it means what we’re doing is working.

All in all, it was a productive year that showed a lot of growth and prosperity. And it laid fantastic groundwork for 2017. Things in the world may be challenging, but we believe staying true to our work and being productive is one way of being radical.

We’re looking forward to seeing what 2017 brings, and we hope to see you on the way.

What does a company meetup look like when “Family” is a core value

This last week, the whole of Zao converged on the beautiful city of Portland Oregon for a 5 day meetup extravaganza. Being that Zao only has 5 members, this may not sound that impressive, but Zao has a particular value, Family, which meant this was not your typical company meetup.

We had every member of each family in Zao together for those 5 days in a large home near downtown Portland. This includes Mihai and his wife Roxana (who made a trans-continental journey from Romania!), Me, my wife Meagan and our 3 kiddos (cross-country from North Carolina), Liz and her husband, Marcus, and their 2 children, and Justin and Melissa and their 4 children. If you’re counting along, That’s 17 people under one roof!

While a meetup like this has the potential to quickly become a disaster, we found it to be the exact opposite (despite the fact that the adults were outnumbered by young children, and the event wasn’t without a certain level of “crazy”). So much of our work is reflected in our families, and vice-versa. We were able to spend time with each other’s families, and to see the similarities as well as differences, and to gain an understanding of what makes each of us “tick”.

There is simply no replacement for in-person meetups, where we can put a face to a name (or slack avatar) for each employee, and their spouses and children. Having this meetup was an incredible way to confirm our core value of “family”, both by ensuring our families were involved, but also by confirming the abstract notion of Zao as an extended family. This may not be the quickest or recommended way to corporate/financial “success”, but for Zao, we wouldn’t want it any other way.


Portland Skyline

Just like in the movies


We just got back from our first ever company meetup where all four of us where in the same place at the same time…with all of our spouses and children. To say it was epic is an understatement.  This was the first time all of us met in the flesh. In actuality, the weekend was full of a lot of firsts.

It was almost immediately apparent that our entire group (17 in total: 4 employees, 4 spouses, 7 kids, and 2 babies) had chemistry and was able to gel without effort.  Usually in a group this size there is going to be an odd duck, or “they’re nice, but [fill in the blank]”, yet that wasn’t the case.  Even our kids all got along and kept each other entertained.


This instantaneous connection enabled bonding, camaraderie, and access to our truer selves that would have otherwise required more effort and time to get there.  Not to say we walked away as besties with the deepest understanding of our life stories, but unequivocally, we feel like a collective family instead of a handful of employees doing work on the web.  The increased trust and familiarity with one another will only serve to strengthen and shore up Zao as we plunge forward.

It was also really enlightening seeing our strengths and differences play out in everyday normal life.  Even things like playing pool or grocery shopping revealed our personalities, processes, and frameworks. I constantly caught myself thinking, “This makes so much sense!”  There were so many connections for me between how someone approaches code with how they approach their everyday life.

Our differences were really highlighted to me as well.  I’ve never thought much about how I’m the only female on our team, but it was striking to me in different situations.  Similarly, I don’t often think outside the American framework, and having non-Americans in our midst opened my eyes to things I don’t normally see.  For whatever reason, it’s easy for me to homogenize our team when 90% of my communication with everyone is only in written words and the occasional /giphy.  I feel like now I’ll be more aware of our differences in our future communication after this.

I feel like this weekend was laying a fantastic foundation for what future Zao will hold.  In a lot of ways it felt like getting engaged.  We’ve permanently established that we like each other, we want to be together, and we work well with each other.  Now I believe we’ll start facing and conquering the pain points and challenges that come in every business, relationship, group, etc.

Ultimately, I could not be happier with the group I get to work with.  I couldn’t imagine a better setup.  We’re a dream team that’s just like in the movies*.

*Ed. – When Mihai came in from Romania, nearly every new experience was appended with the statement, “It’s just like the movies!

Family, Legacy, Generosity | A Team Meetup Debrief


A couple weeks ago, we held our first-ever-in-person-Zao-meetup.

Prior to the meetup, I asked our entire team a simple question: What do you want to get out of this meetup? I had my own thoughts and answers about that question, and everyone else had their own as well. Ultimately, it all boiled down to one simple idea: Relationship. We have all had mostly digital interactions with one another, with the odd in-person meeting here and there.  But we’ve never had the opportunity to really connect in tight quarters and really get to know one another.  Earlier this year, we determined it was time to change that.  But why?

Why We Do What We Do

We live in an incredible day and age – people that do the work we do are among the most privileged at any point in history, and indeed, anywhere in the world today.  We have the incredible gift of being able to work remotely and rarely, if ever, have to look too hard for work.  The idea of “working remotely” is catching on, and is now more popular than ever.  With all the good this brings – it can also have it’s challenges.  Chief among them – we’ve lost something in our Slack channels and Github issues and emails that can’t be gained in front of a computer screen.


Our team at brunch on Day One

I mean it – if there’s one thing we’re lacking in our work relationships, it’s a real bond, a real closeness.  Anyone I’ve ever known that has worked for a remote company and had the opportunity to spend time in person with their team agrees – there’s nothing like physical proximity to bring a positive shift in the dynamic of your team.  Many teams get by for a long time without ever meeting in person – and kudos to them for that. But for our team – our core values nearly demand a high level of relationship and emotional intelligence towards one another.

Core Values

Among our core values as a team, three rise to the top consistently.  These aren’t on a poster anywhere, there is no team tattoo (yet). These are reflected not in some statement that is written, but in behavior that we model and live out, every day.


There is much discussion in our space about what our “model” for teams should be. Some believe even the word “team” is too intimate. Your group should be ephemeral, interchangeable, and above all, dispensable! Others do in fact settle on “team” or “partners” to fully reflect the group of people they represent. I don’t believe there’s a right answer for everyone, but I know the right answer for the company we’re building.  We’re not just a team, we’re not just partners, and we’re certainly not dispensable.  We hire very slowly because 99.9% of people who might apply to work with us simply won’t be the right fit.

That’s because we’re not building teams, we’re building family. We don’t hire people to be a rung in their career ladder.  We don’t care as much about what your salary looks like as what success looks like for you. We invest, deeply, in our people – and in return, they invest deeply in us.  We know their names, their spouse’s names, their kid’s names (and forbidden nicknames).  We care about them getting out of debt, getting ahead in life, and becoming enormously successful.  We grieve when they grieve and we rejoice when they rejoice.  We imagine them with us forever – not for 3-5 years (or whatever the “average” tenure is these days).

Hiring really is a huge expression of this core value.  I’ve heard more than one executive say, “We hire slowly, fire quickly!” – or something to that effect.  Our approach is different: We hire glacially and fire painfully. It hurts to lose a family member, so we do our best to avoid that.  Part of that is making sure no one makes it on the team that doesn’t feel like family. Talent, reliability, eagerness to learn – these are all important. But if you’re on our team and are struggling, we don’t fire you, we train you. We mentor you. We invest in you. Because that’s what family does.


I can already hear the rebuttals to our previous core value, so let’s try this one on for size – we have no exit strategy. We have zero plan B for Zao – we’re planning to be around for a very, very, very long time. When I hear people fawn with excitement over the latest M&A story, or VC funding round, I’ll be honest – I gag a little.

However en vogue it may be to chase high-dollar exits and acquisitions, the long-term story is always the same – a path paved with disappointment.  We think a lot about executing well today, about meeting next quarter’s goals, and about our one and five year plans. But you know the depth of time that really occupies my mind? 200 years. Businesses that impress me today are not generally ones started in the 21st century, or even the 20th. What fascinates me to no end – and what drives me – is figuring out how we can have a lasting impact.

How can we, as a company, have an impact that spans generations, that spans lifetimes?  I’m far less interested in how much cash is in my bank account when I turn 50 than I am with the amount of lives that have been positively impacted because of the work we’ve done.  Can we change the family tree for our clients, for our employees, for our contractors – so that 10 generations down the line – we can point to the work we do today as a turning point?  I believe we can. When our vision is expanded beyond the immediate and beyond what is normative, we begin to behave differently, value things differently, and see the world differently.


Our values of family and legacy find their natural expression in generosity. Anytime I’ve seen families break down, or the intended legacy of someone break down (think probate court) – it’s because of a breakdown in generosity. Not only in resources and finances – generosity of spirit, of time, of heart.  Focusing on generosity will always win over focus on profits and the bottom line.  The paradox, naturally, is that by focusing on what we can give away – it always comes back to us in spades.

If you’re a business owner and these sounds really “out there” or ethereal – I’d love to chat with you about them. They are among the values that define us as a business, that drive all of our decisions, and that contribute to our profitability. (Yes, treating your employees like family, caring about the long-term, and giving more than you get – all winning values!)

Back to the Meetup

So – what do these core values have to do with our meetup?

literally everything.

We can trace these values all the way back to our early planning for the meetup this spring. Who comes to the meetup? Spouses and Kids. Why? Have you ever attended a long conference, or had extended travel away from your family? It’s hard. On both ends. For so many reasons. It would beyond hypocritical for us to tout Family as a core value and completely remove the familial element from our team.  As everyone on the team will attest, having all of us together with our spouses and kids provided so much more context to who we are as people than would have otherwise been the case.

It’s fine and good to say, “Hey, if you want, you can bring your family.” – but many of us have experienced that offer in the past, only to read the fine print.  By all means, bring them along – but you’ll need to sort out their airfare, their lodging, food, etc. Thanks, but no thanks.

When our team brings their family members along, we pay for everything, for everyone. No questions asked. Why? Because we believe so deeply in Generosity as a core value, that if we don’t deal generously with our team members, we can’t ever expect them to do the same to others.

Finally, I believe one of our greatest dividends we’ll see in the future from this meetup is something we can file under Legacy. Whether that is someone reaffirming their love for our company and our industry, someone being exposed to our myriad children (9!) and deciding that they, too, want to have kids – or simply the strengthening of foundations between managing partners – the seeds sown during our time together will bear fruit over a lifetime.


If you’ve stuck with me thus far and consider yourself someone who leans much more practical, rather than visionary, here’s a paragraph for you. You’re probably asking yourself at this point, “BUT WHAT DID YOU GUYS DO? HOW MUCH DID IT COST? WHAT LOGISTICAL ISSUES WERE THERE????”

Calm down. Get a cup of coffee. Let’s talk:

Logistical Challenges

With international team members, visas were a hurdle that took some time. It was our first effort like this with international attendees, so I didn’t know what to budget for that – in terms of time, or money. We gave ourselves about 6 months and around $1,000 to take care of that.  With two people needing visas, it made sense to fly them to their embassy for the interviews and pay for the visas. $1,000 was plenty for that. YMMV.

Another part that was important to us was making sure everyone got to spend the full meetup together. We started on a Thursday – so that meant we needed everyone flying in no later than Wednesday.  We had international folks fly in Tuesday, in hopes to fight off jet lag through Tuesday-Thursday.  This worked out remarkably well.  If you do a meetup, I highly recommend this – but be sure to account in your budgeting for putting people in hotels or Airbnbs for these “extra days”.

Finally – finding a single house big enough to house our whole team. This was a little tricky, what with all the kids. Thankfully, our family was the biggest family (2 adults, 4 kids) and we had gotten pretty good at traveling and working out sleeping in one room.  So a 5-bedroom home ended up being a great fit for us.

How Much?

Around $14,000, all told.  That includes everything – visas, airfare, food, activities, additional lodging, etc.  Worth every penny.

What Did You Do?

so. much.

Seriously though – we had a definite skew towards kids-related activity – but it was all really fun. We hiked Multnomah Falls (?). We went to the Portland Children’s Museum (amazing). We went out to Andina (omg). We also just stayed in and played a lot of pool, had a lot of wonderful conversation, and got to know each other.

andina was omg-delicious.

andina was omg-delicious.

The Team

Over the next few days, you’ll hear from the rest of our team about their take-aways from the meetup. I hope you enjoy their perspectives as much as I have – we really do have the best family in the world. Think you’d be a good fit? We’d love to hear from you.


Today, Zao turns ten years old.

Even typing those words feels a bit surreal.  It feels like just yesterday I was dropping out of high school, getting my GED, and Googling “how to start a business”.  Within a few short weeks, our articles of incorporation were filed, business licenses obtained, and my (literal and figurative) hungry, 18-year-old self was pounding the pavement trying to figure out who would pay me to build a website for them.

The journey thus far has not always been easy, but it has always been worth it. We’ve had the opportunity to do some incredible work, partner with amazing clients and agencies, and build life-long friendships with people I would have never met otherwise.  I’m in a constant state of awe at the caliber of people I get to be on this journey with.  Grateful is too simple a word, but I am certainly that.

To every client, employee, colleague and friend who has been on this journey with us – thank you.

To my wife, Melissa, for her undying patience with me – thank you.

To the One I look to, the Creator of all things, Jesus – thank you.

Zao turns ten years old today. Our very best days are ahead of us.

#BeachPress 2013 | WE CAN HAZ LOGISTICS

We’re SUPER excited for the BeachPress 2013 plans.  I’ve been a tad surprised at the response and buy-in from people thus far – we only have 4 spots left, so if you know anyone (or if you are someone) who wants to come, we have just a little bit of room left.

I’ve set up a really quick and easy survey with PollDaddy to help cover some of the logistics.  This includes things like dietary restrictions, what time you’ll be getting in (for potential ride-sharing arrangements.) – stuff like that.  We want to make sure this is an awesome event for everyone in attendance.

Take the survey now.