Pixelgrade Transparency Report #7

It’s becom­ing crys­tal clear that we’re in a marathon, not a sprint. The last six months showed us that run­ning a dig­i­tal busi­ness is a con­stant roller coast­er and when­ev­er you feel that things slow down anoth­er chal­lenge is right around the cor­ner. We glad­ly share our first-hand adven­tures, so grab a cup of cof­fee (or lemon­ade since it’s get­ting hot out­side) and enjoy our lat­est trans­paren­cy report.


Overview

We’re liv­ing in an era where you can feel pres­sure on mul­ti­ple plans. Pres­sure to have a suc­cess­ful career, pres­sure to build some­thing long-last­ing, a pres­sure to grow both as a per­son and as a pro­fes­sion­al, pres­sure to deliv­er, pres­sure to lead by exam­ple, pres­sure to know the answer for any ques­tion out there. It’s not only chaot­ic, but this per­ma­nent state of mind brings a tone of dam­ages.

How­ev­er, we deeply believe that we need to relearn how to slow down, how to say no or I don’t know, how to take the time to make an in-depth analy­sis, how to nur­ture rela­tion­ships or accept fail­ures and cel­e­brate wins. We have our rhythm and we prac­tice resilience on a dai­ly basis since we’re con­fi­dent that putting the best ver­sion of our­selves out there is the best thing we can do.

Read fur­ther to find out what we man­aged to cre­ate in the last six months and what hap­pened across the team. Let’s dive in!

Product and support

  • one new theme released — Vas­co for trav­el blog­gers, and anoth­er one on the final lap — Noto 👀 (stay tuned!)
  • launched Pix­el­grade Woof, a new mar­ket­ing cam­paign for the shop with our dogs at the fore­front (Paco and Arlo)
  • three new free themes for WordPress.org (the lite ver­sions of HiveGema and Patch)
  • an active writ­ing activ­i­ty on our blog with 19 valu­able arti­cles (from case stud­ies to inter­views with our cus­tomers and edu­ca­tion­al resources)
  • scored 116 Word­Press gems using our themes in the Show­case
  • a pilot yet promis­ing episode around our attempt to run an ambas­sador­ship pro­gram
  • a bunch of Thank You Let­ters sent to our beloved cus­tomers around the world
  • the begin­nings of a new way of cus­tomiz­ing the style of a web­site — Style Man­ag­er 👀 (more on this lat­er)

Team and culture

  • two new great folks joined the team: Minela (to help us embrace the admin­is­tra­tive ocean) and Andrei (to dri­ve our prod­ucts even fur­ther through mar­ket­ing efforts)
  • our first intern is here: Răz­van (fron­tend devel­op­er) plus we’re on our way to bring anoth­er one on the back­end side of things
  • a week­ly lead­er­ship meet­ing to make sure we’re aligned and we’re shar­ing the same under­stand­ing on busi­ness and non-busi­ness top­ics
  • a lead­er­ship work­shop with an exter­nal con­sul­tant to help us bet­ter define the mis­sion and the val­ues to align and guide us all at Pix­el­grade
  • bet­ter lead­er­ship roles to help us nav­i­gate with ease and agili­ty (CEO, CPO, and CTO)
  • 1:1 ses­sions to keep track of everyone’s real­i­ties and per­spec­tives
  • an intense recruit­ment jour­ney both for fill­ing the pipeline and hav­ing inter­views and chats
  • some extra activ­i­ty: Oana is an ambas­sador for The Water­cool­er (an online lead­er­ship com­mu­ni­ty), and Radu made a 3-months intern­ship at Automat­tic
  • last, but not least, almost the entire crew attend­ed Word­Camp Europe 2018 in Bel­grade, Ser­bia

Fun facts:

  • 🏍George trav­eled by motor­cy­cle for a few days, but he nev­er showed us pic­tures dur­ing his hol­i­day
  • 🎤Oana was a speak­er for a local mar­ket­ing meet­up and she sur­vived (she even said yes to anoth­er one)
  • 🤩Vlad was, by far, the most ener­gized and engaged team­mate at Word­Camp Europe #well­done
  • 🚴🏻‍♂️Alin final­ly got his dream bicy­cle, and now he’s rid­ing it every sin­gle day #keep­it­up
  • 👑Răz­van eas­i­ly became a CSS Grid con­nois­seur and dis­cov­ered a bunch of excit­ing stuff
  • 📚Radu fin­ished his intern­ship at Automat­tic and start­ed to cre­ate Lite ver­sions of our themes by the blink of an eye
  • 🏡Andrei took good care of the house while we were in Bel­grade, at Word­Camp Europe #thanky­ou
  • 🎨Ilin­ca par­tic­i­pat­ed with oth­er fel­low illus­tra­tors in a live-draw­ing ses­sion
  • 👩🏻‍🍳Minela cooked for us from her ear­ly days at Pix­el­grade and it was deli­cious
  • ⚽️Adi went to play foot­ball and nev­er came back (we wish him a speedy recov­ery)

Revenue

Our over­all rev­enue has been a lit­tle bit small­er than the pre­vi­ous six months which is not some­thing to brag about, not by a long shot. Despite this lack of [aver­age] growth, we are glad we could off­set the slow, but steady, decline in The­me­For­est sales with our own Shop.

On the WordPress.com front , things haven’t moved since they are still not accept­ing any new pre­mi­um themes in their mar­ket­place, at least not until they man­age to decide on a new atti­tude towards themes and what they should offer (espe­cial­ly with Guten­berg com­ing). The rev­enue here has remained rel­a­tive­ly sta­ble com­pared with the pre­vi­ous six months. Not bad, but not great either.

The place that fills us with hope and around which we can build with con­fi­dence is our own shop. It has been grow­ing steadi­ly, actu­al­ly pick­ing up quite a bit of steam recent­ly. We are more empow­ered and hap­pi­er to play the long game in this sce­nario.

$32,826 total month­ly aver­age (–3.8% down from $33,682)
$20,814 month­ly aver­age from Enva­to (–16.3% down from $24,877)
$4,857 month­ly recur­ring rev­enue from Pix­el­grade Shop (+240% up from $1,467)
198 new active mem­bers in the Pix­el­grade Club out of 408 that start­ed the free tri­al

Expenses

Thank­ful­ly we’ve man­aged to keep our expens­es in check and in line with the rev­enue. We are grate­ful for what we have and what we can afford, espe­cial­ly since our team has shrunk a lit­tle bit since a year ago.

We’ve man­aged to most­ly shield the team’s income from the down­turn of the pre­vi­ous year. We are glad we’ve been able to pull this off and we are con­fi­dent each one’s efforts and loy­al­ty will bear fruit in the not so dis­tant future.

The aver­age month­ly expens­es hov­ered around $28,491 (very much the same as before –  $28,292), bro­ken down into:
— 69.5% salaries
— 19% main­te­nance (rent, soft­ware, account­ing fees, sup­pli­ers)
— 11.5% occa­sion­al expens­es (hard­ware, mar­ket­ing, trav­el­ing)

There is one more rel­e­vant thing to note about our rev­enue and expens­es: the cur­ren­cy fluc­tu­a­tions. This is espe­cial­ly impor­tant for busi­ness­es like ours that are not based in the Unit­ed States, or to some extent the Euro Zone, that have most of their expens­es (salaries) in a local cur­ren­cy.

Ear­ly on, we’ve decid­ed that since we are tar­get­ing the whole world we should keep things sim­ple in terms of pric­ing: the same price in the same cur­ren­cy for all. We’ve cho­sen the US Dol­lar as we believe it is the de fac­to cur­ren­cy of the inter­net. This was advan­ta­geous while the dol­lar was strong against the euro (some pre­dict­ed par­i­ty a year and a half back), but not so nice in the cur­rent times where tides have turned towards a stronger euro. This can have as much as 5–6% of an impact on our rev­enues in our local cur­ren­cy (con­ver­sion fees includ­ed). Just some­thing to fac­tor in when try­ing to make sense of the num­bers.


Going back to basics: Values and Mission

When things are going great, who has the time to pause and con­sid­er the fun­da­men­tals? Why change it if it works, right? It seems out of place, even the wrong thing to do since you risk dis­turb­ing that won­der­ful momen­tum. The pic­ture changes com­plete­ly when the tide turns (and it always will). Sud­den­ly we find our­selves in a storm of ques­tions to be answered and deci­sions to be made, with our feet sink­ing ever deep­er in the mud of uncer­tain­ty. This is when frus­tra­tion sets in, peo­ple lose their focus, their dri­ve, and bad deci­sions are made, if any at all (don’t know which is worse).

For too long we’ve been try­ing to fight our way out of the swamp by dou­bling down on the same things that served us well in the past: can do atti­tude, work hard, resilience, loy­al­ty, tech­ni­cal inge­nu­ity, try­ing to come up with the next cool prod­uct. These help and shouldn’t be tak­en light­ly. We’ve man­aged to rebal­ance our rev­enue and expens­es, or suc­cess­ful­ly shift our efforts toward our own shop – this should be enough, right? The real­i­ty showed us that things are a lot hard­er to turn around once uncer­tain­ty and con­fu­sion take over the hearts and minds of peo­ple. Our best efforts [as lead­ers] were faced with excru­ci­at­ing reluc­tance and lack of for­ward progress. Some­thing else was at play here.

Going back around two years now, we’ve come to grips with the main cul­prits: insuf­fi­cient clar­i­ty around who we are and why we exist as a com­pa­ny and as a team, on the one hand; our per­son­al dif­fi­cul­ties as lead­ers to con­vey and rein­force what­ev­er clar­i­ty we have in the hearts and minds of those around us, on the oth­er hand. It turned out that there is a huge gap between fac­ing this real­i­ty and work­ing towards a bet­ter sce­nario. Thank­ful­ly, we are a stub­born bunch that doesn’t give up so eas­i­ly.

Right from the start, we knew this was too hard and too impor­tant to try and tack­le it our­selves. After all, how could the same think­ing that got us here could pull us out? We’ve reached out to peo­ple around us who’ve been there before and asked for their assis­tance and advice. We’ve been tru­ly blessed in this regard: won­der­ful peo­ple respond­ed and agreed to help us out at var­i­ous stages. Lucky as we are, it turned out that there was no easy fix and the bulk of the prob­lem lay with us [the lead­ers], or bet­ter yet, in us. We need­ed to find the courage to look in the mir­ror, and accept and embrace what­ev­er we would find there.

A cou­ple of months ago, we’ve real­ly man­aged to smash through long-stand­ing bar­ri­ers thanks to Adri­ana Truong who real­ly clicked with us and knew how to adapt its approach to the giv­en moment. There were a cou­ple of days of care­ful scruti­ny around who each of us is and stands for, around hav­ing a firm grasp of our real­i­ty, all cul­mi­nat­ing with three days of intense, mind-bend­ing intro­spec­tion and sin­cer­i­ty. It felt like a month’s work, but it was all well worth it because we’ve man­aged to achieve a lev­el of clar­i­ty unknown to us up until that point.

There were three clear out­comes: our core val­ues, our core pur­pose or mis­sion and our long-term goal (BHAG). These have served us well in stay­ing sane and tack­ling what­ev­er life throws at us. Things are still ear­ly and all could very well be undone and reduced to a cou­ple of emp­ty words on a flipchart. That’s the trick with these “soft” areas of a com­pa­ny and team: they require con­stant com­mu­ni­ca­tion for rein­forc­ing and refram­ing them through­out our time spent togeth­er.

Style Manager – Rethinking the Way You Personalize Your Site

If you’ve kept tags with us through­out the years or had a quick look at our prod­ucts, I am pret­ty con­fi­dent you know we have a thing for design [think­ing]. We drool over things that look and feel right, well thought, things that have human inge­nu­ity and pas­sion embed­ded in them. This is the fun­da­men­tal dri­ve behind our prod­ucts. It often leads to leaps of faith and going down the rab­bit hole with noth­ing more than the self-con­fi­dence and trust in the ones along for the ride.

One such endeav­or sur­faced from our belief that there is always an eas­i­er, smoother way of doing things – we’ve rarely shied away for tack­ling elu­sive prob­lems (at least from where we stand). While inter­act­ing with our cus­tomers, prob­ing at the unex­pect­ed ways peo­ple are using the tools that we pro­vide, try­ing to gauge how much are we help­ing them on their road to suc­cess, some­thing seemed out of place.

Many cus­tomers kept the default styling that we pro­vid­ed, and more so, tried to stay as close to the demo that show­cased our prod­uct. We’ve strived to bun­dle a decent amount of flex­i­bil­i­ty with our prod­ucts so each per­son could adapt it and infuse it with its’ own char­ac­ter and per­son­al­i­ty – to make it their own. Some took advan­tage of the cus­tomiza­tion con­trols, some even took things too far, but a fair amount of our cus­tomers were miss­ing out, at least from our point of view.

It turned out that peo­ple real­ly took our “we are the design­ers” stance to heart. The styling options that we pro­vid­ed, lim­it­ed as they may be, were still too much and things felt too easy to mess up. Our cus­tomers were right. We’ve also been right. We are the design­ers and it is up to us to do bet­ter, much bet­ter. Chal­lenge accept­ed.

When we envi­sion a prod­uct, when we cre­ate a web­site around that prod­uct, we make hun­dreds of design deci­sions, big and small, often just by fol­low­ing our [trained] instinct. To help peo­ple nav­i­gate a sim­i­lar path we need­ed to find a way to grab those deci­sions and dis­till them into prin­ci­ples that could be set in code.

We decid­ed to cre­ate a cus­tomiza­tion sys­tem that would be high­ly intu­itive, flex­i­ble enough to allow for true per­son­al­iza­tion, but smart enough to keep the over­all look and feel con­sis­tent and in line with the design think­ing that came with the prod­uct. Like the say­ing goes “Eas­i­er said than done”. And no, we haven’t thrown machine learn­ing at it. Not yet, at least.

A list of mood-relat­ed Col­or Pal­lettes which will get your web­site clos­er to what you need.

After rewiring our cus­tomiza­tion log­ic, try­ing things first by hand, then dis­till­ing deci­sions into code and deter­min­ing the sat­is­fac­to­ry point of com­pro­mise, we are now in a posi­tion to say we’ve man­aged to lay a sol­id foun­da­tion for the whole project. Our cus­tomers can already play around with the first ver­sion of Col­or Palettes and we hope in the not so dis­tant future to be able to com­plete the styling pic­ture with Font Palettes options.

These are the first two stages of the vision we have for the Style Man­ag­er – the third one being Lay­outs. The road is long and with lots of unknowns, but we are con­fi­dent this a wor­thy under­tak­ing to take our prod­ucts to the next lev­el. Stay tuned.


The next lap

We will con­tin­ue to invest our best efforts into what’s already in the pipeline, but we’re also going to keep an eagle eye on both the mar­ket and the Word­Press ecosys­tem per se. The only thing that slight­ly changed is our ambi­tion to be even more agile and on top of things while bear­ing in mind that we’re here to stay for the long game.

In just a blink of an eye, here’s what we are going to focus on:

  • Style Man­ag­er — we’re going to iter­ate, improve and ship the actu­al sys­tem to many more cus­tomers.
  • Pix­el­grade Shop — all speed ahead in this direc­tion: from new prod­ucts to a smoother expe­ri­ence for our cus­tomers.
  • Goals and Objec­tives frame­work — to help us work bet­ter and more effi­cient across the entire team.

🍸Summer is here

We wish you all an inspir­ing sum­mer, full of new chal­lenges and great mem­o­ries. No mat­ter the nature of them, don’t for­get to enjoy the ride and make the most out of it. Thank you for read­ing the Trans­paren­cy Report #7 and feel free to share your thoughts with us. We’ll glad­ly answer any ques­tions. Stay awe­some and be brave!

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