Transparency Report #13: underwater is breathtaking

While we were standing still and burning rubber in our previous report, we now find ourselves with our heads underwater. While we paddle and explore the “beauty” underneath, we also run with less oxygen, which comes with all kinds of costs and breakthroughs.

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July 26, 2021
Reading time 9 – 14 minutes
Transparency Report #13 Pixelgrade

The last few months brought on a pace we never had in almost a decade. We’re slower, more exhausted, more scattered. It’s a reality we could sense on many levels within Pixelgrade. 

The most direct effect is reflected in our cash flow because the revenue got thinner and more erratic. The not-so-obvious, yet important ripples are across the team. In the first half of 2021, some of our colleagues were sick, had faced unpleasant events, so their energy and drive slipped accordingly.

A small crew of only eight people is a fragile system that absorbs vibrations more intensely when someone is out of duty.

Swimming in the sea comes with both serenity and burden. The water is calming, the horizon line brings hope and tranquillity, the sun heats our bodies and takes the pressure off our shoulders. But there’s also uncertainty and tiredness, physical and emotional. It’s hard to keep the tempo, be safe, maintain a certain amount of control. 

As if by a reverse-miracle, some unfathomable hand decided we didn’t have enough and we should swim with our heads underwater, for added urgency and drama.

As with most mammals out there, we couldn’t live underwater for too long. We have limited resources in our bodies. They are finite; it’s that simple. As much as we find meaning in embracing conundrums and complex challenges, there’s a point where we need to ask ourselves how much we can carry on.

In this report, we try to depict an honest image of our becoming in this specific moment in time and space. As we’ve always done, we are committed to be transparent and surface the whole landscape (yes, the cracks, too). In the end, stormy seas (and unfathomable hands) are part of any organization’s path, so why try to hide them?

Quick navigation in this article:

Overview of the deck

“Thought is the wind, knowledge the sail, and mankind the vessel.”

August Hare

A quick yet frank summary of the first half of 2021 comes with a sharp message: we made little progress. There are two aspects that weighed heavily on us, and we think it’s essential to provide a broader context for each. 

First of all, the blunt truth is that we’ve built various pieces of a giant ship at once. We’re not done with any of them, so that’s one of the main reasons why we stood silent and avoided making a big fuss about it. We don’t like gathering a big crowd, cutting the ceremonial ribbon, and show up with only a few parts of a working product. It would be messy and frustrating for both us and our potential customers.

Second of all, despite this conscious decision to keep things under the radar, there’s no doubt that all the events we’ve been through, both personally and collectively, left marks on our focus and performance. From there, the domino effect rapidly occurred.

It’s not at all comfortable to acknowledge and live with any of the above, but it’s part of our shared reality. We showed up one day after the other, doing our best to put our ducks in a row. Sometimes we succeeded, but unfortunately, we faced plenty of setbacks. For us, it’s crystal clear that fatigue, along with less oxygen and weak bodies, brought us here today. It’s a spot with mixed feelings, but it’s not the end of the journey.

Revenue

Six months ago, we had one of the smoothest and most predictable sailings of all time. While not unexpected, now it seems like we are taking a look at the seabed. Hopefully, it’s just another journey of discovery which we will swim through successfully without emptying the oxygen tanks. It won’t be a quick bounce to the surface, but we will do our best.

When it comes to actual numbers, the last six months look like this:
$29,187 total monthly average revenue (–6.5% down from $31,217)
↳ $13,359 from our shop at Pixelgrade.com (-7.3% down from  $14,414)
↳ $12,557 from the WordPress.com marketplace (-3% down from  $12,943)
↳ $3,157 from the Envato marketplace (–10% down from  $3,510)

Pixelgrade monthly revenue evolution of the first six months of 2021

Murky waters and all, we thought we had been alone underwater, but maybe we weren’t. Speaking with other people from the WordPress community, it looks like it’s an overall drop in the field of traditional WordPress themes, sales being affected regardless of whether the products are available through a marketplace or independent shops (like ours). 

One likely reason might be the impact of shifting to the new Gutenberg editor and the confusion created by the way the future of WordPress themes might look like, taking some prospective customers aback. Some just sit-and-wait for things to become clearer, while others look to other solutions, hopefully only temporarily. I think this attitude will change once the trend of creating block-based sites in WordPress will get more traction.


Expenses

Our average monthly expenses increased slightly to $27,489 (+6% from $25,934), broken down into:
→ 76% of salaries
→ 19% maintenance (rent, software, accounting fees, suppliers)
→ 5% occasional expenses (office remodeling, hardware)

The numbers and percentages are in line with the previous months with a slight increase in salaries and maintenance costs.

Happenings within the crew

1. Team momentum changes

Regardless of how eerie or murky the waters are, life has its flow and rhythm. We cannot oppose it. Whatever each of our teammates experienced in the last year or so twisted the perception on big topics, such as life, death, love, impact, and so on. All of them leaned and weighed on Pixelgrade’s ship.

We’ve been eight people at Pixelgrade for almost three years now. Mădălin (front-end developer) and Alex (customer support) are the last comrades to come along and have stuck with us ever since. Besides them, we did not bring anyone new on board, which is comforting and delicate at the same time.

On the one hand, we’re aligned with our culture and core values; we have a common understanding of the organizational intricacies; we know how to handle most of the situations we face without feeling awkward or insecure. It saves time and mental bandwidth, which is a-m-a-z-i-n-g.

On the other hand, the current team size, along with the fact that we’re not students anymore and our lives got more complex with time, makes tackling big projects less sustainable. Wherever someone takes the paddles off, the entire ship shakes.

In a way, it’s ironic. 

Four or five years back, we were younger and with fewer dilemmas, which meant that we could have pushed the boundaries with impunity. In a way, we did that, barely. Now, with more significant issues on our table due to adulthood, we don’t have the same drive and stamina to maintain a certain velocity. It feels like we missed something on both ends.

Regardless of how cynical it might sound, a company does not expect anyone to take time for its needs. Pixelgrade, like any organization out there, requires constant fuel and dedication. Once we stop, the damage is very broad, especially in today’s WordPress ecosystem. We don’t have a solution nor a magic recipe, but it’s definitely something we need to sleep on in the next few months.


2. An updated version of the employee handbook

During the first months of 2021, Oana reopened the conversation about the perks we offer. The need emerged from the fact that some of the advantages we’ve been providing have brought little to no value, while others felt de facto

We did not capitalize on valuable perks we were giving at that moment, and others became irrelevant. 

The updated version of the house book it’s a comprehensive resource that functions as a standard reference for everyone at Pixelgrade. It showcases the current moment we are as a team and business, alongside our particular needs: new benefits anchored in today’s reality and a few rituals to create stronger bonds. 

Here are some specific decisions we took:

  • during August we work four days per week
  • we have three Fridays off during the year (long weekends)
  • we offer four days for remote work per month
  • we make team huddles every few months (two of our teammates live in other cities)
  • once a year, we sign out and spend time together, preferably in nature.

Oana documented part of her process in an in-depth article where she shares the urge to rethink such perks within our company and get a frank overview.


3. The first book signed by Upstairs Community is here

The highlight of this celebration is the publication of our first physical book, with all the 27 narratives published so far. It was a challenge from top to toe, but we’re beyond grateful for walking through the process and making it happen.

It’s such a special feeling to see it, to touch it, to smell it, to skim through it. At least for us, there is something absolutely mesmerizing in the materiality of things, the capability of physical creations to activate so many of our senses.

We work in the digital world, and most of the time our work does not get to see the light of the actual Sun, which is a blessing and a curse. It remains neatly tucked away in folders, files, Basecamp, GitHub, Paper, Dropbox, Drive, and other similar apps and tools. 

Therefore, we lack tactility, and we pay a cost for that. For instance, it’s easier to miss some progress that we’ve made, nor how much effort we’ve put into a project because we can’t see the pile of papers on our desks. Publishing this book reminds us about the beauty that lies within human contact because it will reach 70 members of our community: real people who already sent us real photos with the book. Hooray!

This tiny object beautifully encompasses the Upstairs Community’s spirit of generosity towards everything this adventure represents and stands for.


4. We have a new business partner, captain!

Răzvan has been with us for more than nine years, while Pixelgrade celebrates ten this fall. Without further ado, he’s a pioneer and a witness to all of our cycles of transformation and growth.

As a front-end developer who proved so many times that he could come up with witty solutions for all kinds of problems, and a teammate who gets his hands dirty on various organizational endeavors, it felt right to make this jump and bring him closer to the partners’ table.

It took several internal discussions to grasp his intentions and specific expectations better, but we made it happen in late spring. Our handshake confirms that we share similar goals regarding how we imagine Pixelgrade both in the short and long run and relief that the boat has another set of paddles.

Three years back, Oana joined forces to bring her know-how in nurturing relationships on a team level and reinforcing the culture consistently. In 2021, Răzvan got closer to bridge the gap between George and Vlad by putting his soft and hard skills at work.

We’re happy about this milestone, and we genuinely believe it happened at the right time for both him and us. Congrats!

The next big wave

Swimming with our heads underwater managed to open our eyes in ways we never experienced before. 

One of our core values is excellence, and we put it at the forefront of everything we do. Sometimes, this means looking at the opposite side of the spectrum most Valley-entrepreneurs are focused on. 

When they shout out that the secret is to create MVPs and launch them fast, we take a step back and ship when we think it’s good enough. We’ve always been embracing this attitude in the last decade, and we like to believe it’s a substantial part of what brought us here today, with all the goods and the bad.

The project we’ve been crafting is a massive, deep-sea creature that has the power to make memorable ripples within the WordPress ecosystem and bring us closer to our mission. It’s also one of the most challenging in terms of motivation across the team. The road is full of ups and downs, we iterate a lot, there’s plenty of back-and-forths, and we don’t release stuff loudly, which definitely impacts the squad’s mojo and makes their wheels spin slower. 

We’re looking forward to shipping it in a couple of months and celebrate accordingly. Big time! And hey, once it is there, it’s your turn to tell us if you feel safe enough to scuba dive with us and discover the fascinating beauty underneath in a way that will stick with you forever. Can’t wait to enjoy such adventures together!

Oana
What gives you fuel to keep navigating whenever you encounter murky water?

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Ionutsays:
Relevant commenter background or experience:chief failure officer

Hey! Most important for me in the past was the fact that I was not alone, as long as the other people involved wanna keep going, I would too + fear of failure. We see the same trends in terms of revenue and I see it as a continuation of 2017-2019 trend.

Oana
Oanasays:
Relevant commenter background or experience:Storyteller & marketing gal
Hi, Ionuț! 👋  Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this one.

Feeling less alone helps us relate, which definitely helps. As for the trends, I’m afraid I became quite a skeptic since we often got caught off guard. That’s one of the reasons we’ve been investing so hard in making our brand rock-solid and offering an outstanding customer experience.

It’s a neverending tango, but one thing is crystal clear: trends or not, the future is challenging and full of unknown. Best of luck, and keep it up!

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Sim Filipsays:
Relevant commenter background or experience:All at sea these days

Heya! Just wanna say this is a very poetic transparency report and I love how you used the sea/water methapor throughout the article. 🌊 Plain sailing from now on!

Oana
Oanasays:
Relevant commenter background or experience:Storyteller & marketing gal
Don’t we all need more poetry in our lives? Thank you so much! Stay serene. 🤗
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Chris McCoysays:
Relevant commenter background or experience:WordPress Geek

been a pixelgrade customer for years, love your products, looking at the chart did you lose money this month after paying expenses? 

Thanks for staying with us, Chris! It’s nice to see you around. Yeah, the cash flow turned negative last month. 
Oana
Oanasays:
Relevant commenter background or experience:Storyteller & marketing gal
Thanks for your kind words, Paul! It means a lot to me. While we care about how these trends impact us, I think it’s wise to focus on making our ship stronger, too. The WordPress ecosystem is a blessing and a curse at once, and that’s okay. But what we need to do is to keep our promise to the customers and reach our mission. If we need a different route than what we experienced in the last decade, so be it. We’re up for the challenge! 💪

Thanks for sharing this – I think you guys are too 5% in the marketplace – hope things start trending upwards soon!

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Thanks for the kind words and support. 🤗  We’ll do our best to change this trend for the better. 
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