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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.


Thoughts on College

College isn’t something that I’m particularly well-qualified to address.  I dropped out of high school at 18 years old, got my GED, and started my business.  I did go to a semester of bible college, but that hardly qualifies as higher education.

Even though I didn’t find college to be something that was part of my long-term goal – I’m actually not 100% opposed to schooling.  I think it works fine for a fair amount of people.  This post was inspired by a conversation between my friends Cory and Chris on Twitter.  I tweeted something as part of that conversation that I do actually believe with significant conviction:

See,  I’m not anti-college.  I think it can be a great experience that provides necessary training for certain walks of life.  I’m 100% against two things that often come with college: 1) Lack of direction 2) Debt.

Over the past decade or so, the usefulness of a 4-year degree has been challenged by an ever-changing economy.  I feel like starting my company back in 2005 with no college education was a bit more of a leap of faith than it might be today.  I actually believe that anyone can be successful at working for themselves.  It’s a matter of hard work, sacrifice and discipline – but I think living life well requires those things of everyone.  Because of that conviction, I do question the general assumption held by my parent’s generation, that is: Everyone should go to college.

Lack of Direction

I can think of nearly a dozen people in my close circle of family and friends that were (or are) 5th-year seniors.  They went to college, because that’s what normal people do. They had no idea what they wanted to do next week, let alone for the rest of their lives.  For some reason, though, it was important to go to a 40K/year school for 4-6 years to end up with an English degree and working at a Starbucks.  Again – I think college works for some people.  But if you’re using it as an excuse to figure out what you want to do with your life – there are FAR cheaper ways of doing that.  I realize that I’m a bit of an anomaly – I knew I could run a business building software by the time I was 15.  I don’t think everyone has (or needs to have) that kind of direction at that age.  That said – if you’re 15-17 years old and have no idea what you want to do, DON’T GO TO COLLEGE!

That’s right.  Bold, italicized and underlined.  All caps, too, because I’m shouting.  There’s no reason to spend tens (if not hundreds) of thousands of dollars at school to figure out what you want to do. Don’t go to school, go to work!   Find something you love to do and do it.  Heck, even if you don’t love it, just go make some money.  Life will never be as inexpensive for you as it is right now – go earn and save a ton of money!   Hustle, hustle, hustle and make the life you want.   Along the way, you’ll figure out what it is you want to do.  There’s life in the doing.


No me gusta debt.  Je n’aime pas debt.  Ich hasse debt.  我討厭的債務. Seriously.  I hate debt.  I can’t say it in enough languages.  It’s a scourge to personal finances and businesses alike.   Like the ancient proverb says, The borrower is slave to the lender. Debt causes you to miss the mark, to be shackled to things you were never meant to be shackled to.  One of the biggest areas of indebtedness today is student loan debt.  Student loan debt has nearly quadrupled in the last 10 years.  In 2010, for the first time this century, student loan debt was greater than both auto and credit card debt.  It’s a big deal and it’s weighing my generation down.  I know too many people who are working in dead-end jobs for “job security” for no other reason than their student loans.  I have personal friends whose student loan payments are bigger than their rent checks. 

Having two kids (and one on the way…and who knows after that!), has caused me to think about this often.  I am absolutely saving money for my kids to go to school, if they want to go.  If they’re going to become doctors or lawyers or certain kind of engineers – of course, they’ll have to go to college.  But what if they don’t?  What if they get married at 20 years old to some trust fund kid?  What if they start a business?  What if they take over my business?  What if the best thing for them is to go work at an orphanage in Tanzania after high school?  There are so many unknowns in life that I can’t imagine forcing my children on one certain path, boxing them into an academic world that may just not be their calling in life.

Again – if you don’t have to go into debt for it and you know why you are going – absolutely go to college.  Go to the best college you can afford that makes the most sense for the path in life you want to take.  But please, for the sake of your future self – don’t go to college just because normal people go to college.  I know normal.  Normal is broke.

Giving Thought to Cadence

I’m sitting here on my family vacation, enjoying some time away with my wife and kiddos.  Genuinely stress-free and delighting in an ocean of gratitude for my life.  Such a great place to be.  As I’m sitting here, I’m listening to my wife read a book to my daughters; it’s a book called Big Red Barn.  The book is in rhyme, naturally, but it has a very peculiar swing to it.  It’s written such that I notice the distinct differences between the way my wife reads it and the way I read it.  We see the same letters on the pages, telling the same story – but it’s a different experience.

That’s because of a thing called cadence.

Cadence is the swing, the rhythm, the movement.   It’s a term with both musical and storytelling connotations – but much like music and stories – the song and story of our lives have a cadence that we get to choose.  I might have the same letters and pictures in my story as someone else – but because I choose to live according to a different cadence, a different rhythm – it’s really a very different story being told.

As I listen to my wife read this story in her own delightful way, as my daughter’s snuggle in to the comfort and familiarity of their mother’s cadence – it’s a humbling thing to realize I have a cadence all my own – one that is different, but complimentary, to my wife’s rhythm of life.  Such a beautiful revelation.

I share all of this because it’s a concept that can bring a lot peace and encouragement – especially for business owners like myself, but honestly – it’s a good lesson for anyone.  Once we realize that we have a song, a story and a cadence all of our own – we get to be free from the vanity of comparison.  Once we stop comparing ourselves (or our kids, or our businesses,  our spouses, etc.) to one another; we get to enjoy the privilege and honor that no one else on earth gets to enjoy.  That is, the ability to sing our song and tell our story with the exact cadence that we were made for.

As much as this all might wax poetic, as a freelancer and business owner, this has incredibly practical implications for me.  Assuming I make the conscious choice to define my cadence for myself and not allow the rhythm of my life to be defined by others – I can build my life in such a way that I experience and live in incredible amounts of freedom.  I can’t imagine any greater goal of choosing the freelancing/self-employed lifestyle.  The problem is, of course, that many in my position (including me, at times) allow the cadence of our work schedule, our lives, our boundaries, etc. to be defined by others, instead of intentionally defining them for ourselves.

Food for thought.  For now, it’s time for “food for body” – off to enjoy some yummy Mid-Western fare!