WordCamp US 2023 Review
Table of contents
- About me and why I chose to go
- What was WordCamp like for me?
- What did I do well?
- What could I have done different?
- How did WordCamp impact me personally?
- How did WordCamp help me professionally?
- What are my takeaways?
- Recommendations for others considering attending a WordCamp
- Was WordCamp worthwhile?
- My WordCamp future
WordCamps have been a staple of the WordPress community for many years but with COVID they essentially disappeared. As the world comes back out of hibernation, so are the WordCamps. This year I made the decision to attend a flagship event, WordCamp US, in Washington DC.
The first thing I want to get across to everyone reading this: WordPress Hospitality is real. Every single person was happy to talk and embraced myself and anyone else no matter what. I thought maybe this was going to be for the “in crowd” only but I can say without hesitation that those in the WordPress community are simply lovely people who will quickly make you feel at home as well.
I want to make a special thanks to Maarten Belmans of Studio Wombat who makes awesome WooCommerce plugins. He and I had recently met digitally as part of a mastermind group of fellow WordPress product owners. Having traveled to the US for the first time from Belgium, I applaud his boldness to come to this wacky country that has bizarre ways of doing things (like tipping) that don’t make any sense and never will. We were able to meet up early on and from there he was a great resource for hours of conversation about business and life as well as a person I knew I could reach out to if I started feeling a bit lost on what to do next during the event. He has already become my biggest cheerleader in my endeavor to build WordPress products and I’d like to think I’ve made a great new friend.
For anyone considering a WordCamp, here is what the whole thing was like for me as a small, independent WordPress developer:
About me and why I chose to go
I have worked with WordPress since 2005 and I am in the process of changing my business focus from clients via AshWebStudio to product first via WP Sunshine. I launched Sunshine Photo Cart in 2010 as my first product but it has been stagnant for about 5 years. I created WP Sunshine in 2021 to expand with more plugins and started by releasing my second freemium plugin, Confetti, along with a few other freemium and completely free plugins.
My free WordPress plugin offerings are one way I have tried to give back to the WordPress community since it has allowed me to build my livelihood on it. About 9 months ago I also became more active on Twitter as a way to be a part of its community online to talk about my journey and maybe help others in some way.
When WordCamp US was announced, I hesitated about going for quite a while – missing the deal on the rooms at the official event hotel. Coming from Colorado wasn’t going to be cheap between flights and a hotel, and, let’s just say, income is down lately on the client side. I heard many people raving about how awesome WordCamps are with those in the community who enjoy connecting with their friends and were committing to go without hesitation. I have had the privilege of meeting and chatting with some of them virtually as a result of my participation on Twitter, but I still didn’t really know anyone.
I consider myself a bit of an introvert and didn’t feel confident it would be worthwhile. I had gone to WordCamp Denver many, many years ago but basically was a cockroach that moved in the shadows of the event mostly undetected and not interacting with anyone. Being in a large group of unfamiliar people is my absolute worst nightmare situation.
However, after a lot of nudging eventually my wife convinced me I should go since it seemed like I was genuinely interested. So I booked the flights and hotel in a moment of sanity (or insanity?), forcing myself to commit.
What was WordCamp like for me?
Here was my schedule of activities that I ultimately had over my 5 days there:
- Wednesday: Travelled and attended a freelancer/agency happy hour meetup
- Thursday: Contributor Day (I didn’t realize this when I signed up) and the Hallway/Cafe Track
- Friday: Sessions, vendor hall, product makers meet up and Pride party
- Saturday: Sessions, vendor hall, more hallway track, scheduled meetings
- Sunday: Tourist day around DC
- Monday: Work from hotel until I traveled home
WordPress is open source and relies on its community to continue its growth. This day, where you can join one of many teams within WordPress and help even if you have little to no experience with it, is such a cool thing. I decided to join the Photos team for somewhat selfish reasons: I have a plugin for photographers. I felt I could contribute not only by submitting some photos but primarily by emailing my 5,000 professional photographer email list about it, tell them how they could participate, and try to get more great submissions to grow the number of photos available.
The session topics weren’t the compelling reason I attended but there were a few that I was interested in. I wish they organized them into Using WordPress, Building for WordPress, WordPress Business & Marketing tracks and went more in depth on each. While it was an absolutely stunning venue, I wish more money was put towards getting more speakers instead of the venue.
I attended 4 sessions total across 2 days and felt like they validated my existing thoughts on the respective topics helping me feel more confident about them with a few added tidbits augmenting my knowledge. The presenters all did a great job and I commend them on being so brave to stand up in front of a huge room of people to present!
Outside Meetups and Events
By participating with the community online, I was invited to a couple of after hours events:
Freelancer/Agency Happy Hour
This outside, unofficial event, held on Wednesday before WordCamp, was my first foray into actually meeting people from the community in real life. Thankfully it was in the restaurant at the hotel I was staying so even I couldn’t come up with a reason not to go. I decided to just go full steam towards the group sitting outside to keep myself from overthinking it and backing out last second.
When I got to the group, I got my first dose of WordPress Hospitality when I was immediately welcomed by several people already there. After some initial nerves, I felt like I fit right in and contributed to conversations and asked questions.
Freemius Makers Meetup
This was an invite only (another reason to be active on Twitter) for those who make and sell WordPress products – even those who do not use Freemius. Vova, the head of Freemius, clearly cares about this group of people as more than just potential customers and I greatly appreciate his WordPress Hospitality and generosity!
During this meetup, I fell a bit victim to feeling “small.” I couldn’t really get past the idea that if you listed every person there by their income, I would have been at the absolute bottom and I allowed myself to feel a bit out of place.
However, this was completely my own thoughts as every single person I talked to treated me with the utmost respect, was genuinely curious about what I did, and was able to give me some new perspectives and ideas about my business and journey to product first specifically or the WordPress space in general – it was really enlightening!
This unofficial track is a way to meet and talk with other attendees literally in the hallways is a legit thing. You can easily get caught up chatting with people and miss sessions you actually wanted to attend. I agree with many others that this is the secret sauce of the entire WordCamp experience.
On Thursday, after participating in the first half of Contributor Day and lunch, I had every intention of finding a spot to respond to emails and do some work. On the way out, I spotted someone whom had said she wanted to meet at some point. I hesitated at first, but quickly decided to stop thinking and just go for it like the night before. I walked over and joined her and a few others I wasn’t immediately familiar with. Thankfully, that WordPress Hospitality came out again and I quickly felt comfortable talking with everyone. I spent 3-4 hours sitting at the cafe as various people came and went and was able to meet many other WordPress product makers (without even having to get up) I may not have otherwise – exactly what I had hoped to accomplish in my time there, and it happened so early on!
On the other days with sessions, I was able to talk with a few people who had flagged me down by recognizing my WP Sunshine logo shirt. Some were brief and a surface level conversation while others I got to talk shop and potentially make some future partnerships.
This was another unofficial event out in by sponsors and was a real party – no business, just fun! The goal of the event being to ensure that everyone feels welcome and can have a safe space to be their authentic self and enjoy time with colleagues and friends and a great place to cut loose from the business side of things and just enjoy yourself. While I feel proud of myself for giving the event a shot, I was quickly reminded that I’m not a loud music and dancing type person and left pretty quickly although it seemed like many others were having a great time!
Official WordCamp after party
After all the sessions on Saturday, I went to the party at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum. Yes, most of the stuff is grade school level things most of us already know, but being able to have most of the place open after hours to just our community was a brilliant idea: It allowed people the opportunity to continue talking business or just enjoy some relaxing time with friends while enjoying the amazing exhibits.
I was pretty mentally spent by the time it came around though. I had a few delightful desserts, a couple nice conversations, but happily returned back to my room.
I did decide to reach out and ended up joining some others afterwards, but hindsight I wasn’t at my best being that exhausted and late at night and probably should have just gone to bed straight away.
What did I do well?
I was nervous that I would repeat my Denver WordCamp experience from years ago, but I think I did pretty well!
- I’m happy I was able to be purposeful by setting my phone aside and listen to the talks but especially while engaging with people. I don’t think I ever walked around staring at my phone which made it possible to make eye contact and welcome others to engage with me.
- I shoved that social anxiety to the back of my brain and dove in with two feet more than I expected. I never hid in the shadows of the event or went back to my room.
What could I have done different?
- Drink all the water to stay hydrated so I don’t get wrecked the day after having drinks. I’m not a huge drinker and had more beer in these few days than I’ve probably had over the last few months resulting in a hangover one morning.
- Asked more questions of others, I feel like allowed the conversations to get lopsided towards me.
- Make a meeting schedule available and put it out there, I missed some people who wanted to meet me I wasn’t aware of and we didn’t get a chance to connect.
- Get rid of the “small” mindset. Not one person cared about my income levels (as far as I could tell at least) except me, they seemed to want to simply be around other nice people.
- Stop and talk with new people more instead of relying on them to stop me.
- Take notes after each interaction: I took some for this write up as they came to me but I failed to write down anything around the specific conversations I had. I wish I had done so immediately after each person I met and talked with.
How did WordCamp impact me personally?
I’m writing this on my flight home and think it’s still a bit too early to know the full extent at which the events of the last several days will have an impact on me going forward, but so far I can say:
- I think my wife, a complete extrovert, has had a huge impact on helping me be more extroverted and comfortable in group settings, but honestly the WordPress Hospitality of everyone makes it so much easier to dive right in. I might need to reconsider my self view about being introverted.
- Lately I’ve been getting concerned about how long I can do all this and can I make it to retirement. Seeing older WordPressers still passionate about it made me feel less concerned and that I can probably just put it out of my mind.
- I received some clarity around my business journey. Example: The recent launches of AI site builders had made me feel obsolete on the client front. I now understand why: I enjoy the first steps of making websites (designing and building) but hate the last (content strategy, marketing). The last is what’s truly important and helps you grow an agency. I’ve turned this negative into a positive: I feel more excited and confident about my journey into product first because I’m moving away from doing things I don’t like and more into what I do like.
How did WordCamp help me professionally?
I did not have any expectations that the sessions were going to give me significant new knowledge, but I went into the ones I attended with open eyes and ears to get whatever I could. In the hallways and personal chats were the most productive:
- New ideas for income streams
- Reframing my mindset around growth strategies I have planned in the future to be more successful with them
- Set the stage for new business opportunities to help growth
What are my takeaways?
WordPress is a great community of people
Every single person I met and talked to is someone I would love to meet and talk with again, I didn’t have one negative experience. Maybe I got lucky but I feel like it’s the norm.
One amazing thing were the people who stepped up and filled in for one business owner who could not get a visa to man his booth. Every time I walked by, someone was giving up their time and enthusiastically trying to spread the word about his offering.
A piece of humble pie
I have a lot of confidence in what I can do as a designer and developer, but being around so many incredibly talented people is humbling and intimidating.
A surge of energy to keep pushing forward
Surrounding yourself with kind, successful people can be very invigorating and give you the energy to reach the same level of skills and success they have.
So many ways to WordPress
My WordPress worldview held space for blog owners, client site makers, and plugin developers. But after speaking with others and the sessions, I’ve come to realize there are so many ways to use WordPress to be part of a community, have a job, or build a business.
Recommendations for others considering attending a WordCamp
- Join the community online beforehand, Twitter seems the most active.
- Schedule meetings with a few people you are interested talking to beforehand.
- Wear something that identifies you and your business (if you have one), the badges can be hard to see but shirts are much easier to identify and help strike up a conversation. Or, wear a weird shirt that gets people’s attention and eventually they will approach you and use it as a conversation starter.
- Continue meeting with people after WordCamp via Zoom.
- Take the swag, don’t overthink it – they genuinely want you to take it even if you and they know you won’t be a customer of theirs.
- It’s exhausting! There was a lot more walking and talking on my feet and I was utterly wiped out after the first day of sessions.
- I couldn’t really work during the whole thing except answer a couple support tickets here and there from my phone. Don’t even try to do real work in between, be fully present and just deal with it when you get back.
- Having another person to lean on helped me immensely, but be sure if you have someone like that to not use that person as a crutch and not expand your outreach to others.
Was WordCamp worthwhile?
Simple answer: Yes.
I think I’m going to end up spending about $2,000 total for the whole thing door-to-door. Most of that was spent on the hotel for 5 days as my flight was unusually cheap for some reason. Thankfully, the hotel served breakfast, WordCamp provided lunch for 3 days, some outside events covered food and drinks by the respective sponsors, and the full day of sightseeing in DC was completely free.
Will I recoup any of that by seeing an increase in sales? I have to imagine I will see at least a few purchases I may not have gotten otherwise at some point, but I can’t imagine it’s going to be anywhere near the cost of the trip. As an attendee, recouping the cost shouldn’t be the goal anyway.
Otherwise, I absolutely feel like I got my money’s worth. Having recently talked to a business coach and seeing pricing, I can easily say the quality and quantity of the conversations had absolutely justifies the price. Also, you can’t put a price on making a new friend.
My WordCamp future
I definitely see myself going to another WordCamp US in the future, maybe even one overseas. I definitely see value in the whole endeavor and continuing to grow a network of other smart, kind people. Especially when working solo at home for myself, this lovely WordPress community can be a great way to find a “team” I can bounce ideas off and joke with while maintaining my current goal of keeping my business simple as just myself.
One thing that completely surprised me was that I felt inspired to consider giving a (lightening) talk in the future! I once wrote an article called Designing for Clients Made Easy that I think is completely relevant still today. My other idea, whether I find success or not, is to discuss my journey from clients to product first to help inspire or guide others on what to do (or not to do) and want to do the same.
Thank you again to the WordPress community and everyone who makes WordCamps possible in so many ways! I would still love to chat with people on Zoom or Twitter, so feel free to reach out.