From WordPress to custom development, The Fold helps clients of all scales make the most of their websites.
Dan Hay and Mark Collister, co-owners ofThe Fold- an Auckland-based agency - talk to us about how they ended up with two brands in the market, navigating projects that range in complexity, and the relative benefits of WordPress and the increasingly-popular Craft CMS.
SiteHost: How did the two of you end up co-owning The Fold?
Dan: The Fold started back in 2012, originally with four co-owners. Three years ago Mark came on board and we began focusing more on custom CMS development. We started branching out further to custom Laravel and Vue setups. Before then we were more WordPress focused.
Mark: I have a long history in IT and programming. I was contracting for The Fold, doing more custom work and web application development rather than CMS backed sites. It seemed like a natural fit for me to start working with Dan. So I came on board as a half-owner and we developed services that could compliment each other. We've been growing that custom development business quite a lot. It’s been very busy for the last two years.
Those services are broad, from UI design to web development, consulting, design and analysis. How do you navigate projects from end to end with that many touch points?
Dan: It's different for each project, because our clients vary in terms of what they want and what markets they're in. We've got clients who go for small brochure style WordPress sites to completely bespoke solutions with a web app.
The one common element is doing our homework before we engage with any clients. We make sure that we're on the same page in terms of their expectations and end goals. That defines what services we chuck into the mix, one step at a time - requirements, design and then build - to shape what services they use and benefit from. One process with new clients is asking ourselves “are we actually the right fit?”. We don't want to bend our services and skill set just for the sake of winning a job. We want to actually produce something successful for the client.
You guys mention creating meaningful experiences. What do you think makes a meaningful online experience? And how does The Fold go about creating them?
Dan: That ties back into customer and user goals. It's about understanding what our clients are trying to produce for their own customers. Trying to get in the headspace of their customers, and making sure that they're achieving their goals when they reach our sites.
It's essentially making sure that if they've come to find something, they found it easily, or if they've come to the site to do an action, they can work through that process easily. If they walk away feeling satisfied, then that's a meaningful experience in our book.
Dan (left) and Mark (centre) have co-owned The Fold for about three years
Are you able to stay involved after a website launch? Can you stay in touch and make sure that the conversion goals that were set are being met?
Dan: It's interesting because we have two types of client. Our WordPress base, generally, wouldn’t engage with us too much after their projects are live. They are more brochure style sites which we develop and release into the wild.
In that scenario we tend to educate the client on how to maintain and keep an eye on tunnels within their own site. When we hand over there is a training session involved that tells what you can and can't do with WordPress, how you can gauge customer interaction with your site and the tools that you can use.
But, it's not as foolproof as having an ongoing client engagement once your site's gone live, which is what we prefer.
Mark: Custom development brings in more long term relationships and ongoing updates to sites and functionality. We use Craft CMS for clients where they fit somewhere in the middle between something fully custom and WordPress configured out of the box.
Before we compare those two CMSs a bit, some readers might not realise that CraftWP is your WordPress brand. How did you end up with two brands in the market?
Dan:CraftWP evolved from one of the owner’s freelance work before The Fold was around. It's always been focused on WordPress. The Fold started with no online presence, so we kept CraftWP alive, thinking we would take it down when The Fold site took off. Except it's always performed well for WordPress work so we left it there.
Do you see differences in the clients that each brand attracts?
Dan: Often WordPress clients either have a small budget or a tighter timeframe. So it could be a website, an intranet, or basic web app or ecommerce store - they all fit the bill for WordPress. It’s also good when they want something that they can play around with themselves to try out different marketing applications. When clients don't quite know what they're doing with their business long term, having that sort of platform where they can try things out themselves is beneficial.
WordPress is a really good example of how you can extend and change what it does because of its massive library of plugins. You can easily turn a WordPress site into an ecommerce store or an e-learning platform just through plugins.
Mark: For the custom development - and this applies to Craft CMS a bit as well - clients are usually looking for deeper integration with external systems and processes. Custom integration and more customised design come in here, or clients who are more design-focused in terms of front end when WordPress limits you to themes and plugins out of the box.
How have you seen WordPress evolve over the years? How has it stayed so popular?
Mark: It's getting a bit more industrial, with third party support outside of the core. WooCommerce is a good example of a commercially supported plugin that works well. So I suppose categorising WordPress as ‘enterprise’ is more realistic now than 10 years ago.
From a technical perspective, they've been fixing a lot of complexity in the last few years. WordPress looks like it was started by front end HTML developers, but it's evolved since then. It’s so easy for people to use that it's hit critical mass. If you look at that trajectory, many business referrals come to us because we're well known in the WordPress space via CraftWP.
You’ve let some clients do a lot with WordPress, like getting the small team at Wilderness magazine into the world of ecommerce. For a team whose bread and butter is a print publication about the great outdoors, that’s a big step.
Dan: Before they came to us they had their original WordPress site and were trying to get online subscriptions working. We went through redevelopment and added in WooCommerce for the online store, and there's memberships and subscriptions involved with that as well.
It’s a good example of WordPress and plug-ins fitting the company well, being manageable without having a huge team.
Mark: And without having to spend heaps of money on development, too.
Dan: Yeah, a good case of that is when Wilderness wanted to try out coupons and discounts. They were looking into how they could manage and sell subscriptions as gift certificates coming up to Christmas. That could have been a massive amount of development, but with WordPress there is a plugin. If someone's thought about it, there's usually a plugin for it, so they were able to try out a few different solutions.
Can a technical decision, such as choosing a CMS, like WordPress or Craft, be a source of differentiation for businesses?
Mark: WordPress is super popular now and everybody knows it. People come to us and ask specifically for a WordPress site. We are seeing more customers asking for Craft CMS as it's becoming well known now and people like it.
We often end up directing customers towards what solution we think is going to best fit them and their business. Quite often, they'll think that they want a WordPress site, but they actually want to do something more complex. It's not going to be sensible to try and pull together WordPress plugins to achieve that. So we end up doing something more customised on Craft CMS with a Craft CMS module.
If they're going to be dealing with a really large data set it might be a fully bespoke solution, not Craft CMS, just so we can manage the data behaviour there.
Dan: The last thing we want is to be trying to maintain the wrong CMS for the customer. So it's important to figure out requirements and match them to the best solution. It might not actually be WordPress or Craft CMS, it could be Silverstripe, in which case we would recommend them to a Silverstripe developer.
Mark: Going back to sticking to our core competencies!
You host a number of your sites, whether Craft or WordPress, on our Cloud Containers. What do you guys get out of SiteHost that you can't get elsewhere?
Dan: When we're hunting around for hosting one of our primary things is support. That's always been key. I've hosted with a lot of American companies, and their support is either next to none, non-existent, or handed off to a call centre that's really not well connected to the company at all.
So from my point of view, it's peace of mind. It's just making sure that we've got our sites hosted somewhere that I know the servers are being managed and maintained. Knowing that there’s somebody I can email or call if we get stumped to help us out.
One thing that I've really liked with SiteHost is the proactive nature, which I did not expect. When sites are heading into trouble, whether it's stretching the resources, bandwidth, CPU or often storage, we get someone from SiteHost contacting us saying, “Hey, Mark, hey Dan, this site was just about to fall apart, because it's just about to run out of resources. We've added a bit more to make sure that it's humming over the weekend. And now we can deal with it when you're back on Monday”.
That's really awesome. Rather than getting a call from the client saying the site has just crashed, I'd much prefer that proactive approach.
We run a small team, where we don't have system administrators, so the management plans where SiteHost handles some of that load for us and gives us and our clients some certainty is really useful. Just getting that away from us is handy.
Are you seeing any change in what clients want to achieve online today versus a couple years ago?
Mark: They just want to do more. They want better integration into their back end systems and CRM and seeing what their users are doing.
Dan: Yes, a lot more connectivity between different applications. There are so many different online cloud services available for every part of your business now. We're going through a period where they're popping up, and customers want them easily connected to each other so you're not logging into 12 different dashboards. That's one massive shift going on.
There's a lot of competition in the online space. What do you think brands could do to stand out online and how do you achieve that with your clients?
Dan: Standing out in a digital space is super difficult. We've got clients in heavily competitive areas. To stand out, it's key to understand their point of difference as a business and find ways to drive that online.
We've got a lot of smaller customers who just don't do that sort of business analysis. What they want to do to stand out is just rank above the guy next door on Google. It’s quite difficult to try and do that without some analytical thinking about the business.
**Since you can’t always share a deep strategic understanding of things, what else makes for a productive client relationship?
Dan: A client relationship where we can try things out. You can get down to A/B testing different types of functionality or different ways of wording content and calls to action. Those sorts of things can be quite exciting to get into when you see results coming in.
Technology is always changing and there's always something new to try. It really is the brave who jump on that first and give it a go.
Looking forward to the future, would you say the tech industry is in a good place? What are the sector’s strengths? And what do you think we need to get better at?
Mark: I think it's in a good place. You know, more local product offerings in the cloud space could be good. I'm sure SiteHost is working on some things there.
Dan: I think COVID has driven more demand on digital services for sure, like finding new ways for companies to exist and promote themselves online. We've noticed an influx of the type of client that's either looking for a quick solution or are aware that they need to be less dependent on their brick and mortar company.
Other than keeping up with evolving demands like these, how can digital agencies stay competitive?
Dan: One thing that we've found successful is trying out new things. Technology is always changing and there's always something new to try. It really is the brave who jump on that first and give it a go. It doesn't always work, but if you’re willing to give new things a try in the digital space, then you're going to lead the pack, rather than trailing the best performer.