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Zao: A Look Back at 2017

Last year, we celebrated a huge 2016 with excitement and anticipation for what the future would bring.

We’re happy and humbled to report that 2017 didn’t disappoint. We added a Project Manager to our team, we posted some rad content, worked on some incredible projects, and learned a lot along the way.

Here are the highlights of what went down in Zao’s 2017:

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Zao’s Holiday Giving in 2017

We’ve talked a lot about how we like to give back to our community. It’s a huge part of Zao, as it is crucially connected to one of our core values: family.

Family is more than just your blood relatives. Family is more than what you’re given; it’s who you choose. We say “family,” but family, at the end of the day, is a group of people who are connected by values, goals, and proximity. It’s a community. We wanted to figure out how we could integrate our values into our holiday giving this year. Here’s a little look at how we decided on what to do, and what we ended up picking:

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Getting to Know Zao: Our Project Manager, Lizz Ehrenpreis

One of the cornerstones of how Zao works is the way we prioritize collaboration. We build long-term partnerships with our clients, rather than acting as one-off vendors. We’re invested in their success, and build technology that lays a foundation for them to meet their business goals.

Since we work so closely with our clients, we thought it important that you know who we are. Here’s the fifth part of a series introducing our team, featuring our project manager, Lizz Ehrenpreis.

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WordPress web development, WordPress eCommerce development, WordPress plugin development, hire a WordPress developer

Getting to Know Zao: Our QA Engineer, Mihai Joldis

One of the cornerstones of how Zao works is the way we prioritize collaboration. We build long-term partnerships with our clients, rather than acting as one-off vendors. We’re invested in their success, and build technology that lays a foundation for them to meet their business goals.

Since we work so closely with our clients, we thought it important that you know who we are. Here’s the fourth part of a series introducing our team, featuring our QA engineer, Mihai Joldis.

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WordPress web development, WordPress eCommerce development, WordPress plugin development, hire a WordPress developer

Getting to Know Zao: Our Front-End Developer, Liz Karaffa

One of the cornerstones of how Zao works is the way we prioritize collaboration. We build long-term partnerships with our clients, rather than acting as one-off vendors. We’re invested in their success, and build technology that lays a foundation for them to meet their business goals.

Since we work so closely with our clients, we thought it important that you know who we are. Here’s the third part of a series introducing our team, featuring our front-end developer, Liz Karaffa.

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WordPress web development, WordPress eCommerce development, WordPress plugin development, hire a WordPress developer

Getting to Know Zao: Our Managing Partner & Back-End Developer, Justin Sternberg

One of the cornerstones of how Zao works is the way we prioritize collaboration. We build long-term partnerships with our clients, rather than acting as one-off vendors. We’re invested in their success, and build technology that lays a foundation for them to meet their business goals.

Since we work so closely with our clients, we thought it important that you know who we are. Here’s the second part of a series introducing our team, this time featuring our managing partner and back-end developer, Justin Sternberg.

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WordPress web development, WordPress eCommerce development, WordPress plugin development, hire a WordPress developer

Getting to Know Zao: Our Founder, Justin Sainton

One of the cornerstones of how Zao works is the way we prioritize collaboration. We build long-term partnerships with our clients, rather than acting as one-off vendors. We’re invested in their success, and build technology that lays a foundation for them to meet their business goals.

Since we work so closely with our clients, we thought it important that you know who we are. Here’s the first part of a series introducing our team, starting with our founder, Justin Sainton.

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Yes, You Should Pay Your Employees to Learn

Many of the folks in the WordPress space have come up without a formal education (or without a tech specific education), and became successful through avid learning and self-motivation.

John Hawkins is an excellent example of someone who paved his own path without a formal education: he founded 9seeds, is well-respected for his work with WordPress, and is now the Business Development Manager for WebDevStudiosHelen Hou-Sandí went to college for piano, not tech, and is self-taught in web development; she is the Director of Platform Experience at 10upLisa Sabin-Wilson, partner and COO of WDS, worked as a nurse before she heard about WordPress (when it was in its infancy). After further investigation, she dropped everything to make it her new career…and became the author of WordPress For Dummies and a force to behold in the WP space. Brad Parbs dropped out of college while studying computer science to make his own websites; he is currently a Senior WordPress engineer at Human Made.

Our own founder, Justin, funded Zao’s earliest days by working at Burger King, and now Zao is a burgeoning WordPress eCommerce and custom development agency that is experiencing an incredible growth spurt, after over a decade of steady upward success. JT was a house painter who started fiddling around with WordPress for his church website, joined the WebDevStudios team, advanced to Director of Engineering, and is now a Managing Partner of Zao.

Some of these folks landed in companies where they had an opportunity to unofficially apprentice: they found a position that allowed them to work and learn simultaneously. Others ended up using their own determination and the educational access built into the open-source community to create their own companies. Although they might not have gone through a formal apprenticeship in the way that many of us think, they still sought opportunities for their skills to be developed and to be mentored while also still providing for themselves and their families.

“I don’t pay people.”

Recently, I heard this uttered–without an ounce of shame–on a panel talking about the rise of apprenticeship programs.

Apprenticeships are growing in popularity, particularly in the tech industry where employee retention is low, truly entry-level jobs are rare, and where many people want to work, but don’t necessarily have the applicable skill sets for the positions that are available. The panel was a group of experts discussing their experiences taking on apprentices and how that works for them. One of those experts said the above.

Side note: While I understand that there may be curiosity about who said this or what panel it was, I am intentionally not providing that information as I think it’s counterproductive. This isn’t intended to be a “call out” post, but to examine the flaws in this particular approach.

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Zao Grows: Lizz Ehrenpreis Joins Zao as Project Manager

Founder’s Note: Sometimes, you have a role and need to find a person to fill it. Other times, exceedingly rare times, you find a person and decide you need to make a role for them.

We’re so excited to welcome Lizz Ehrenpreis to Zao as our newest team member. Bringing Lizz into our Zao family is a great example of the latter scenario. After working with her on a contract basis for a few months, we knew she needed to be a more formal part of Team Zao. Her work for an array of incredible clients speaks for itself, not to mention her time at one of our favorite agencies, WDS.

She’ll be spending her time with us primarily as a content strategist and project manager, and we’re so lucky to have her. Welcome to Zao, Lizz!


Hi! I’m Lizz Ehrenpreis. If you’ve been paying attention to Zao, you’ve seen me around these parts, writin’ posts and whatnot. I’ve been a contract Content Manager for Zao since November, helping the Zao team level up their blogging and working behind the scenes on enhancing internal documents.

If you don’t know me from Zao, you may know me from my time as WebDevStudios’ Client Communications Specialist, or from working with a variety of small to mid-sized businesses, many of which are well-known in the WordPress sphere. When I’m not click-clacking away at my computer, you can find me chilling with my two goofy cats, sipping on a sparkling water while reading a book, or tromping around the West Coast like I own it.

Although I’ve already been working with the Zao team, I’ve officially started in a new capacity: I’m no longer just a content maven–now I’m a Project Manager! I’m excited to be moving into this new role and working more closely with the Zao team, who consistently produce incredible work, as well as integrate their company values into everything they do. Their generosity of spirit, kindness, transparency, and collective work ethic is unparalleled, and I’m all too jazzed to be joining the group in a more official capacity.

You’ll still be seeing many more posts from me, although the topic matter may become more diverse as time goes on as I’m about to dive into Louder Than Ten’s Project Management Apprenticeship and learn as I go with the Zao team.

If you want to find out more about me, you can check out my website, follow me on Twitter, or creep me on LinkedIn.

Also, it’s my personal duty to remind you to like Zao on Facebook.

That’s all, folks! See you around the Zao-o-whirl!

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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

Mihai

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 wpecommerce.org.  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.

Contractors

Lizz

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?

Jon

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

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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.

CMB2

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.

GatherContent

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.