My Favorite WordPress Tools: 2014 Edition

Posted on by Brent Posted in Blog Posts | Leave a comment

I keep my How to Start a Blog post updated, but here’s some of the more advanced tools I’ve been using lately. These aren’t really install-and-go – they require a weekend of work to set up and configure in total, but the payoff is worth it.

MailChimp email subscriptions – free for up to 2,000 subscribers, and really reasonable above that. MailChimp makes it easy for people to keep up with you by watching your RSS feed for updates, then sending those updates as nicely formatted emails to your mailing list. Plus, when you want to promote something else like an upcoming event or a product, it’s really easy. People subscribe by filling out the form on the right side of my blog, which is built with…

GravityForms (Affiliate Link) – this $39 form plugin makes complex forms easy. It has an extensive set of add-ons so you can integrate all kinds of services. For example, on my contact page, there’s a checkbox to subscribe to my blog posts via email. That fires off a subscription call to MailChimp. A much more complex example is our company event registration form, which integrates with GoToWebinar, MailChimp, CRM, email, and more. Users love this because they can put in their contact info once, and pick and choose what they want. Combine GravityForms with Zapier, and you can glue anything together.


Subscribe to Double-Opt-In Comments – when your readers leave a comment, some of them want to get notified whenever a new comment (like your response) is added. This free plugin adds a “Subscribe to Comments” checkbox for folks who comment, plus it sends them an email to confirm their subscription. This way somebody can’t drive by and subscribe strangers just by leaving fake comments. It’s just good net behavior. (Checking for it, not doing drive-bys.)

Buffer post announcements to social media – Buffer is a free broadcast tool that can post announcements to your Twitter, FaceBook, LinkedIn, etc. Sign up there, configure your accounts, and then install the WP to Buffer plugin in your blog.

Jetpack plugin with related posts – Jetpack is a plugin written by the folks behind WordPress itself, and it adds a lot of cool features. The one I’d specifically recommend is the Related Posts feature that gives you a little list of related posts under your current one. It’s mostly driven by the tags and categories you pick for posts, so if you haven’t been keeping up with those – and I wasn’t – you may have to spend a few hours pruning your taxonomies on your older posts and setting up featured images for each post. The result is worth it – it surfaces past work that you’re proud of.

WPengine hosting (affiliate link) – we use these guys for, too. They offer a $29/mo personal plan for up to 25k visitors a month, and they have totally reasonable overage fees if you burst higher. (I was bursting higher for several months and didn’t even realize it – I just switched up to the Pro plan for You get all the power of full-blown WordPress, complete with picking your own plugins and themes, but they manage all the boring stuff (caching, backups, high availability.)

How to Have a Great Time at Conferences Like #SQLPASS

Posted on by Brent Posted in Blog Posts | Leave a comment

One of the things I love about conferences is that I’m suddenly surrounded by hundreds or thousands of people who do exactly the same thing I do for a living. We work in kind of a loner field – data professionals often have to work alone in an organization, with nobody else to understand what we do.

It’s incredibly therapeutic to suddenly be able to talk to someone else who gets it. We can vent together about how tough our work is (and how rewarding it is when we get it right.) Before you know it, you’ve made lifelong friends and you’re sharing stories over food and drinks.

And more food and drinks.

And more drinks, and then everything turns into a blur.

Being good (well, at drinking water anyway)

Being good (well, at drinking water anyway)

And sometimes, we wake up a little disappointed with some of the decisions we made, how much we spent, and our ability to comprehend complex technical sessions at 9AM. I’ve been there – I’ve got vivid memories of delivering a session only a couple of hours after I’d downed my last drink. It gets even tougher for those of us dealing with jet lag, time changes, and who don’t drink very often.

Food and alcohol are great. I’m a big fan of both. I’m not here to be condescending to other folks who can party like rock stars, either – I’m all for that as well, even in professional environments like a technical conference. You’re coming here to have a great time, and you should do just that.

Just define what a great time means to you.

For me lately, a great time means meeting up with a lot of my friends, having good conversations, making my attendees happy, and creating more memories that will make me smile through the next year. For me to pull that off, I need to pace myself, sticking to water most of the time. (Thursday, after my last session finishes, look out. I may just start drinking during the Q&A.)

The buddy system is alive and well at community conferences. Declare that you’re not going to drink tonight, and you’ll be pleasantly surprised at the number of people who eagerly chime in. Many of us are looking for an excuse to be good, and by drawing that line in the sand out loud, we all help each other fulfill our goals of having a great time.

Why I’ll Miss SQLBits XIV (Updated: I’m Going!)

Posted on by Brent Posted in Blog Posts | 8 Comments

UPDATE 30 Oct – Good news! The SQLbits organizers reversed course on this decision and let presenters opt out of the pre-con recordings. I’ve submitted sessions (including pre-cons) and I’m crossing my fingers that I’ll get accepted. Hope to see everybody in London! Here’s the original post:

I’ve glowed about how much I love SQLbits, but I’m going to have to miss the 2015 version. Session submission is going on right now, and the speaker contract includes a tricky line:

“If I am selected to present a Training day, then I understand that SQLBits may record the session. Distribution of the session, if undertaken, will only be to attendees of that Trainign Day, under a DRM license and for a fee. Speakers will receive a percentage of that fee, in addition to their normal fee for delivering the precon.”

Ooo, ouch. That’s a no-go for me.

SQLBitsLogoIn the past, I’ve given my SQLbits pre-con attendees free access to an online version of my pre-con as a nice-to-have perk. I’m all for it because I think it helps people keep the learning going after the conference, and it doesn’t cost our company much.

However, I’m not okay with someone else doing it, and the reasons might surprise you.

Live pre-cons have bugs. Sometimes a demo will fail, an attendee will ramble on with a question, the microphone will malfunction, the recording tools won’t copy the right portion of the screen, etc. I’m anal retentive about quality, so I record these in a controlled setting.

DRM is harder than it looks. Just ask the recording industry – they’ve been struggling with copy protection for decades. In our training site, we’ve put work into keeping the training usable for the audience while making it tougher for pirates to redistribute our stuff. I bet the SQLbits guys will put in similar efforts, but…I need to see it in action.

Training pays my rent. I love teaching, but I don’t just do it for the love. I need to make sure that I’m compensated fairly for my work. The contract has no mention of costs, and I have no bargaining leverage. It could be put on sale for $1, and I could get 1% of it.

So I won’t be a part of the next SQLbits, but I know it’s still going to be wildly successful. It’s always a ton of fun to attend (if it was here in the US, I’d still attend!), and I wish them the best of luck with this new phase of their journey.


On Business

Posted on by Brent Posted in Blog Posts | 6 Comments

Quick background: I started as a blog over a decade ago, and today it’s a successful consulting company that gets tens of thousands of spam comments per day. I failed at a few other side projects before that. This post is a brain dump for IT people who are thinking about starting their own thing.

Most of the people who start businesses do it for the love of what they do, not because they want to go into finance, sales, and management.

Most founders (myself included) have no idea what they’re getting into.

That doesn’t mean they’ll fail, though, because passion and hard work can get results. This is why founders say that ideas are worthless – anybody can have an idea, and it doesn’t matter if a million people steal yours. Execution is everything.

Many people who profess to know a lot about business – their business or yours – are bullshitting you. Get good at critical thinking, and use it when you read your own business plans or product ideas.

Most of your suppliers and customers are faking it just like you are. (Again, that doesn’t mean they’ll fail.) The key is looking at their knowledge and their passion and their work ethic together as a complete picture. The more pieces they have, the more likely they are help you.


Be friends with everyone in your market. Being a jerk to your competitors doesn’t make you more likely to win. Your customers would rather see you on great terms with your competition – well, right up to that whole price-fixing thing. That goes a little too far.

Build your own Gartner Magic Quadrant report for your competitors. Your savvy customers can name half a dozen of your competitors – shouldn’t you be able to?

Companies that do the same task aren’t necessarily competitors. You don’t make money for doing a task – you make money because someone wants to pay you to make a pain stop. Competitors are companies that – regardless of what tasks they’re performing or products they’re selling – relieve the same pain for the same people.

The more vague your product or service description, the more competitors you have. “We can do anything to help!” = “We’re the same as everybody on Fiverr.”

Some of your customers have never heard of your real competition. Never talk about your competitors until your clients ask, and even then, don’t do it. Talk about your unique awesome selling points in a way that your competitors can’t address or impeach. Your knowledge of your competitors is only to help you know yourself better.

Every time you lose a sale, ask why, and to who. Don’t be afraid – you’ve already lost the sale. Most of the time, the prospect will actually tell you. It doesn’t mean you have to do anything about it, though.

Understand what products your customers buy from other mature, large suppliers that don’t compete with you. Look at the dominant competitors in that market, and learn how they got into that good place. Learn what you can from their tactics, because they’ve figured out how to market to your customers.

Rules are usually there to help your already-established competitors.

Employees and Money

Wearing my business bathrobe.

Wearing my business bathrobe.

Find people who would make you feel stupid if they weren’t so doggone nice about it. Make them your partners, employees, customers, and suppliers. The first few times you’re tempted to second-guess them, remind yourself of why you’re in a relationship with them – they probably just don’t have the time to explain the basics to you. Let the results surprise you.

Your employees are talking about you when you’re not around. What they say is up to you.

Sooner or later, employees are going to leave you just like you left other companies. Between the time you hire them and the time you part ways, make great memories together.

Pay cash. If you spend ten minutes worrying about how you’re going to pay the loan, that’s ten minutes you’re not focused on your employees, customers, products, and family. If you can’t pay cash, it’s not the right buy for you yet. (I’m writing this for knowledge workers, not factory builders.)

Employees cost six months of their salary. If you can’t pay that cash, you can still hire them, but be exceedingly clear with them about the risk. Not your risk, you vain jerk – theirs. Employees are taking risks too, and you want to make sure they’re excited to take the right risks for their financial situation.

Every month, read your Profit & Loss statement and your Balance Sheet.

If your financial success depends on every customer paying/staying/growing and every vendor delivering, you’re going to fail.

Time Management

There is never enough time to do the right thing by everyone.

Start by doing the right thing by yourself and your loved ones. For that, carve out recurring weekly non-negotiable time. Everything else is a messy, ugly free-for-all, and it never gets better.

There will always be people who want to talk to you one-on-one for free. They want to convince you to give up your cash or your knowledge. The most powerful line in this situation compliments them instead of focusing on yourself: “I know your time is valuable, so let’s cut right to the point: what do you need from me?”

Read book summaries. Most books are one-page blog posts trying to make a profit.


The first time you start something, you’ll be overly focused on keeping all of the equity for yourself. You’ll likely fail because one is the loneliest number. If you’re not accountable to anyone else, you’ll do crosswords instead of building the business.

The right partners make you work smarter and harder.

You don’t really know partners until you’ve failed at something together, and you probably don’t even know yourself until then either. Protect everybody with a great legal agreement.


Come up with a single metric that defines whether you’re gaining or losing. Later, you can add metrics, but start with one.

You’re probably going to fail. Repeatedly. (I did.) That just gives you more knowledge on how to succeed next time.

Have a success plan and a failure plan, both triggered by thresholds of your metric over time (like zero customers gained over three months). When you enter into contracts or corporate partnerships, define the metric, success plan, and failure plan too. Think of it like a prenup, except it’s much more important here than in marriage because there’s no default rules on who gets what when companies break up.

The quicker you can move on to your next accomplishment or attempt, the better. Floundering is for fish.