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Noëlle Steegs is one of those rare freelancers who jumped on WordPress and WooCommerce at the same time. She took some time in the beginning building full sites, as well as growing as a developer. Community has been a driving force behind her growth in her skills.
A Chat with Noëlle Steegs from NoelleSteegs.com
In episode 94, Jonathan and I talk with Noëlle about:
- Doubling down on diving into WordPress and WooCommerce at the same time
- Starting her own store and transitioning to working with an agency as a freelance developer
- Her experience in some of the wrong things to do when starting as a freelancer
- The power of community and connecting with other developers
- Potential downsides in being an active member in the WooCommerce community
- How to get the most out of Facebook groups when asking questions
- The benefits of meetups for builders in the WooCommerce space
- How empathy plays a huge role in your success as a freelancer
- What gives Noëlle hope in the WooCommerce ecosystem in the new year
- Where Noëlle career trajectory is taking her in the Woo space
Connect with Noëlle
Bob: Hey everyone. BobWP here, episode 94, Do the Woo podcast. I'm doing my FM DJ voice. This is the kind of voice you hear late at night where I'm going to introduce my guest co-host. Well, actually my co-host who is a musician who will be playing a few more tracks from his most recent album. Oh, Jonathan Wold. Jonathan, how are you doing?
Jonathan: Hey, Bob, I'm doing well. First show the year for me. Awesome. Happy 2021. And we're getting kind of close to the 100th episode. Got anything exciting planned for that?
Bob: Yeah. We've talked about it. Brad said we had to celebrate last time. And so I think all of us co-hosts are going to get together and we're going to surprise everyone with something.
Jonathan: Oh man. Maybe one of those album drops you've been talking about.
Bob: Yeah, yeah, yeah. It could be the new, we could come up with a whole new intro song for Do the Woo and you'll hear it live for the first time or maybe not.
Anyway, before I introduce our wonderful guest, let me just give a shout out to our sponsors, PayPal. I talk a lot about their pay later options, but the PayPal checkout plugin, I do want to let you know that also has a modular aspect to it, which means if you put it on your client's website, customers won't be leaving their website when they use PayPal. If that is a concern with your clients, you may really want to check out that extension primarily for that reason.
WooCommerce 5.0-rc was released on Tuesday. That is what you have on your desk is to test, test, test. And need I say more.? Do that. It's on track for February 9th and yeah, we're looking for 5.0. I like that. It's a very nice middle. It's a version that just sounds really cool. 5.0, I don't know why. 5.0, maybe we're still all surviving WordPress 5.0 is the reason, but who knows? Anyway, let's get on with our guest.
Today we have Noëlle Steegs. Noëlle is, she really knows how to do the Woo. In fact she does the Woo with Jonathan sometimes. I can say that. That sounds kind of, don't get weird ideas there, but that is really true though. She does the Woo with Jonathan. Noëlle, welcome to the show.
Noëlle: Hey guys, thanks so much for having me. That did make me crack up by the way.
Jonathan: Thanks, Bob.
Bob: I'm always there to add a little something to the episode.
Jonathan: For sure.
Bob: Anyway, Noëlle, how do you do the Woo? I imagine you do it many different ways but how do you do the Woo?
Noëlle: Yeah, I do the Woo in quite a few different ways. I think my favorite way is adding new WooCommerce functionality to existing eCommerce sites, upping the complexity, making sure that the user experience gets improved or that my client has less admin to do.
For example, making suggestions for that. I do full eCommerce and non eCommerce web development projects as well. And I like to sometimes other web developers approach me that are not that experienced with WooCommerce yet. And I guide them on their journey, which is something I really enjoy. And then of course I do the Woo with Jonathan at a WooCommerce Live every Wednesday, which is now the fifth season.
Bob: Wow. That's a lot of woo. You talked about your customer's journey. How about your journey? How did you kind of get into the WordPress space and essentially into WooCommerce?
Noëlle: I got into WordPress WooCommerce space both at the same time, about eight years ago, this was just before I immigrated from the Netherlands to South Africa where I'm based now, actually. And I had an idea for an online store that basically popped out of nowhere. And I couldn't get rid of it. I couldn't stop thinking about it. And I had no resources whatsoever. No budget to outsource anything, knew nobody, no nothing. And I couldn't let it go. But what I did have on my hands was time. I had a two meg internet connection in the small town of Caledon, South Africa and this tiny farmers town. And I had a lot of patience. And so I self taught myself everything. I Googled all the things and back then mind you, the documentation definitely wasn't as good as it is now.
Life now would be a lot easier in that regard, but okay. I was lucky enough to find Facebook communities early in my journey, which made all the difference. People who were willing to give away their time for free to help the newbie out. And if it wasn't for them, I don't know where I would be. That's just made all the difference. And any case, so I did it, I researched. And it was my first job. It was a drop shipping model and I decided I needed table rate shipping. Now for those who know table rate shipping, that's basically, I would say the most complex shipping setup one can get. That was quite a jump in the deep end in that way but it all worked out in the end after a lot of blood, sweat and tears.
And so I built the store. I built the Facebook community around that and I did social media marketing for that and I did get orders in and fair connections and another agency spotted that sort of work I'd done and invited me to become the web designer and social media manager at the agency.
I did that for about a year. It was an interesting experience where I learned a lot. I saw a lot from a different perspective, but in the end it wasn't really for me because their style of working was very different from my style of working. I tend to really dive into details and that's not depending on things like budgets and things like that or turnaround time, that's not always the right thing for that client or agency yourself.
Jonathan: Noëlle, one thing I'm curious about, so you built the store, you learned the skills to do something yourself. At that point, did you have the idea that you might want to do this for others? Was that sort of in the back of your mind?
Jonathan: I'm curious about that moment of transition where you'd built this store and then someone recognized what you'd done and they asked you if you would come work with them in the agency. It sounds like that was the starting point. What was going through your head at the time?
Noëlle: I think I was mostly excited. I didn't feel confident enough to slowly but surely start this out. And we built it up along the way so it wasn't now I've had to develop websites full-time or anything like that. It was a slow start and a buildup.
Jonathan: One of the reasons I'm curious about this is it's interesting. I think some people in the builder space will just start out that way. And they're like, I want to do development work for others and I'm going to learn the skills.
I think your story, I think there's a fair amount of folks who also start out the other way of just building something for themselves, following their curiosity, learning and then at some point that was certainly kind of what happened for me. At some point someone was like, hey, could you do this for me? Back to your story. You got asked by someone with an agency, you did that for a while and then found out that the approach and style wasn't quite for you. And then where did you go from there?
Noëlle: Yes, I did something what I wouldn't quite recommend to others and that is I went freelance without savings, without preparation, without anything really. I went in head first and lived in another tiny farmers village at the time. Back then I also did all sorts of marketing as well, basically trying to get any work that I could get. And I started by approaching people locally. Literally going to the brick and mortar stores and talking to the owners and building my very first tiny little website for client freelance.
Yeah. That was quite a journey. I would say, from the next few years were hard. I'm not going to lie. I worked my butt off. I got actually so excited about it all and about trying to make money because obviously when I started out, my rates were really rock bottom.
And so I got to a point where I basically woke up, started work and I would stop work when I couldn't anymore. That wasn't very good. There was a lesson in that for me in finding that balance.
And over time also, partially because of, mostly because of the Facebook communities, one thing that that changed quite a bit for me was when the Divi Beam was released by Elegant Themes. And the theme I always using for my own store at the time was incredibly heavy and bloated and everything. I jumped on the Divi bandwagon right with first version and joined that community. And in that community we're very lovely people that helped me on that development journey and amongst them where people that ended up hiring me.
That's how I got more work and built it up bit by bit. Nowadays, it's really a healthy mix of things. I would say most of my work is white label work that I do for agencies or for other freelance web designers, web developers. But I also work with clients directly. And again, I really enjoy coaching some web designers or web developers here and there on WooCommerce. Yeah. It's something I really enjoy it. I do screen shares and I kind of, I guide them through the steps. I find that sometimes people are not looking to just outsource, they're looking to now learn themselves how to do it next time.
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Jonathan: I'm curious when you mention that you made that transition to freelancer, you said that you didn't recommend it. Well, and I think there were a few specific things about it. You don't recommend doing it without savings or a bit of a plan because it was hard. And I think a lot of us can relate to that. I certainly experienced years of that myself. If you were to go back and sort of give advice to your younger self, with what you know now, because I think you can look at it a few ways, you also learned a lot through all that pain and difficulty. What would you tell yourself if you could sort of go back to that point in time? If you'd listen, you might not listen.
Noëlle: That's so true. I was very young at the time. Maybe to be a bit more patient and maybe build some savings up or for some freelance clients up on the site, in free time to make that transition a little bit less harsh. But also what would want to say and that's, it's a bit off topic, but I know this is something that a lot of people struggle with in the beginning, the first few years, I swear every time I was about to deliver a website, I looked at the website and I could name a 100 things that were wrong with it. Even though I put a lot of time and effort into it, it's literally taken me years to look at the work and say, "I've done a good job."
That journey took a long time. And I know that there's so many people out there dealing with us, so that's also why I want to bring it up because what somebody once say and I can't remember who, but the more personal, the more universal. Saying that when you think like, oh, it's just me experiencing that. There can be a lot of people experiencing the same thing, but not being so open about it.
Jonathan: Oh, interesting.
Noëlle: Any case also through connecting with other people, other developers, doing code reviews to give, connecting with people who are say a level above me in skill and saying the same thing to them. Instead of doing it for me, can we screen share and can you teach me? And I've really had some light bulb moments. I remember somebody showing me advanced custom fields, which of course works beautifully with Woo. And it was just like mind blown. Yeah. If it wasn't for the community I don't know, life would have been very different and I would never have expected this to happen ever.
Jonathan: I want to touch on the community role for a bit because that's, I think a theme in many of our experiences. You plugged into community fairly early. Could you just touch on, where did that start? Is it something that you sought out? Did it sort of find you? How did you first get connected into community within this web development world?
Noëlle: It's quite a long time back, but if I recall correctly, it was a Divi Facebook group that kind of popped up as a recommendation.
Jonathan: Got it. Yep, okay.
Noëlle: Facebook thinks you'll like this group. And that was the very first thought. And who could have known that now after so many years, I'm still involved in the community and taking a different role in that as well, volunteering for the Woo community. And so, yeah, which is really great because it's an opportunity for me to give back to the community a bit. When I see somebody posting in there and saying, "I'm building my own store and I'm getting this error and I don't know what's next." Now I can empathize with them because I was there and I know what it feels like.
Well, one more question about that. I think with community there's a lot of implied and clear upsides. There's so much to it. I'm curious, more curious than anything, are there any downsides to being an active member of a community? As you look back over your experience?
Noëlle: Not that I can recall, honestly. No. I think community is a really strong thing. I personally haven't really had negative experiences that I can recall.
Jonathan: I have a question. A potential downside or maybe just a different thing. One of the things I've noticed with, let's say you put a question out in a Facebook group and you get a bunch of responses sometimes. Sometimes you don't. But so let's say you get a bunch of responses, but it's a bunch of different responses.
Noëlle: Yes, yes. I agree.
Jonathan: How do you deal with that? That's an interesting challenge, sometimes we just want an answer, but with community, at least in my experience, it depends. And you can get a lot of different answers. How have you dealt with that? And if someone's coming into community for the first time, I think that's something they could expect to experience. What are your thoughts on how to, to deal with that?
Noëlle: Yes, I would say I could imagine it. Well, for me, it was confusing at first sometimes to get multiple answers. But now I realize, there is multiple roads to Rome, or what's the saying? I'm translating from Dutch now, but basically there's multiple ways that it can be done. One point of advice I would give to others is to give us much context as possible, because the better solution for you depends on your context. Also when somebody makes a recommendation and maybe they don't include a lot of explanation of why that was recommended for you. That would be my next step is to ask these people, "Okay, that's an interesting option. I'm looking at it. What specifically about this one did you like? Or why you think this one specifically was great for me?"
Context is really important. What else you have running? What exactly. Not necessarily even what you are looking to do. It's not always about what you're looking to do. It's about why. And then when you dig into the why, when I see people ask questions and I ask them about, "Okay, but why are you trying to achieve that?" You get the full story and then it's but hold on. What about if you take this completely different road that you hadn't considered that might be more effective? That's why context is so important and asking questions.
Bob: On the track of community and in order for people to really understand what my question is before I ask you that, can you just tell everyone what WooCommerce Live is that you do with Jonathan? What that meetup kind of the core of that meet up is?
Noëlle: Ah, yes, of course. WooCommerce Live is a weekly show on Wednesday that Jonathan and I do, half an hour long, focused on a specific topic and we make it for mostly for merchants. I would say, Jonathan. And we leave room for Q and A at the end as well, which is my favorite part, to be honest, because I get to see people's faces that pop up on the screen and their questions are so diverse as the community is. We have guests on as well. Sometimes it's Jonathan and I, sometimes we have a guest. We've had merchants on, big and small, which I've really enjoyed connecting with. For anybody who hasn't seen it, I would like to invite them to come and watch on the next Wednesday.
Jonathan: Just go to a woocommerce.com/live for the detail.
Bob: My question is this. Developers, having dealt with them quite a bit, especially more recently, they don't often see the value in doing a meetup. Developers think, okay, I'm going to be doing a meetup and we're going to get together. You see a lot of them doing it. We're going to get together. We're all going to geek out. We're going to talk about code and they kind of go into a zone and maybe there's 10 or 15 of them and they're just doing their thing.
You as a developer are bringing different value out there to people through the meetup with Jonathan. It's kind of a little bit on a different level to let developers know, yes, maybe it doesn't always have to be a developer developer meetup. Maybe teaching and giving direction to people that are starting out store merchants has as much value. Is there some specifics you want to talk around that?
Noëlle: Yeah, I would say it can be very useful to connect with the group that you don't think about right away. Like you say, it seems like the logical thing to meet up with other developers. One thing that I take away from learning from merchants and from the community and the things I hear is that then say I develop a website and I train the client afterwards.
From the meetups I pick up things that they might find challenging that hadn't occurred to me before that I will need to give more attention or spend some more time putting it out in detail than what I otherwise would've thought. It allows me to approach it with more empathy and being reminded of what might be a beginner or a little bit further than that. Because even though I would say it was a long time ago, so that kind of keeps that present in me, that we all start some way and certain things that you think aren't challenging to you because they're automatic by now, they're still to others.
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Thanks for PayPal for being a community sponsor at Do the Woo. And now back the conversation.
Jonathan: Love that you mentioned empathy because I think people seem to have different inherent levels of empathy. Empathy is something though that can be acquired and cultivated. And at least in my experience so far, it's a very valuable thing to have because when you spend time looking looking at a customer's perspective, there's so much, especially in this WordPress world that it's easy to take for granted. When you've been here a long time, you're used to how things work in certain ways. And it can be very easy to just forget that you didn't know at one point.
Jonathan: And in my experience, one of the things I love about spending time with brand new merchants or even sometimes I'll just work with kids and the questions that they'll ask and the way that they'll go about it helps me realize how much I take for granted and it cultivates that sense of empathy, which I found to be valuable. It sounds like you have as well. And it's something that I think isn't always obvious, so folks will be like, "Oh, why would I want to spend time with merchants?" Or this will happen too. I've noticed some developers, "Oh, I only want to do it if I can get more business out of it." And yes, that actually does happen. It does happen.
Noëlle: It does happen, but I wouldn't say it's optimal or the best way. Now I would say, over time I did get quite a bit of business through also the WooCommerce community, the Divi communities, but it wasn't because I was pitching myself to people. It was because I spent time in there and I, for example, in the Divi community, people know that I do Woo. I would answer those questions specifically because there's less people answering those questions and people would notice and then approach me by themselves. I think it's a more organic way. It's a way I personally prefer.
And I do think that that empathy and web development, well if I start about empathy and web development, I can talk for an hour. But I think when working with clients, especially when working with merchants, I think we should have empathy because a pet peeve of mine is web developers who don't have empathy and who are like, "Okay, the website is live. I'm done here. Here's the login details. Now have fun with your new website." And it might be the client's very first website. They might not be experienced with WordPress. They might not have an idea of how to load a new product.
I think it's very important to just familiarize the client, maybe record some videos. That's what I like to do. When one is, "Oh, how do I quickly do this?" I use screen recording software and I do a how to video for them. And it takes a couple of minutes literally and they love it. They've always said, "Love your videos, because it's clear immediately. It's very efficient."
Bob: Yeah, I sometimes feel like I was born with empathy and I'm not trying to brag or anything but what I found is when I went into coaching in WordPress and consulting, that was where I really saw the value of it. It was like inbred in me somehow. I don't know if it's a gene or what it was, but I would say something and I could hear this pause like, "Oh, you can actually relate to this? The last person that tried to do this with me was almost yelling at me because I couldn't remember this part or I couldn't catch onto this." Yeah, it is.
It's something you have to, especially if you're in any sense in this ever changing world of WordPress and WooCommerce, if you can't remember back four months ago when the version maybe didn't have that and they still haven't wrapped her brain around, it is, it's a powerful, powerful thing. And I think people, clients and stuff and developers, if they can. You get so wrapped up in that code and stuff, if you can pull out that bit and even other people trying to become developers themselves, patience and empathy kind of go hand in hand to me.
Jonathan: My encouragements, we've been talking about community and meet ups and these different types of things. If you're listening and those listening who are in this space, but maybe not well connected to community yet, it's something that as I've reflected back, it's invaluable. It's work. Because people are messy and it can be, there's the ups and the downs of it all, but it's invaluable.
And just by being curious, if you go into a meetup or spend some time in a Facebook group and just be curious. You'll see all sorts of things. And it can be easy to be frustrated, when you see the same question over again, or you see a question where someone did not put a lot of context, that can be frustrating. I would encourage folks to just be curious about things and you can go into a meetup, you can see all sorts of stuff.
And that in my experience at least is where that empathy, you can grow that empathy. If you start from a place of curiosity and just listen, pay attention and think about, okay, if they're asking this type of question, what are they experiencing? Because right now, especially there's a lot more people getting into eCommerce. There's a lot of it's a big deal.
People, their livelihoods are connected to this oftentimes, so people can they can feel some desperation at times or some anxiousness to make progress. You can see all sorts of things, but it's in my experience. And it sounds like yours as well, Noëlle and you, Bob, it's far more worth than not. And it pays dividends over time as you develop that empathy and you're better able to relate to the new things that are going to come along, that you can't expect and predict. You don't know what's coming next, but if you can be curious and empathetic, you're in a good place to be able to navigate what does come next.
Bob: Being in the space, as long as you've been, working with Jonathan on WooCommerce Live side by side, what gives you hope in the WooCommerce ecosystem over the next year?
Noëlle: That's a very good question. I would say it's joined together by a couple of things, but I think the fact that it's open source just makes it completely different from other options and people take ownership. We're all part of this, some people in a bigger way, some in a smaller way. And it's quite a powerful thing when you know that your efforts in whatever way they may be.
Maybe you're in a Facebook group, answering questions, maybe your skills are more developed and you're helping with documentation or bug fixing or anything like that. I think it's a really powerful thing to contribute to something that millions and millions and millions of stores are running on worldwide. Yeah, I think that's a beautiful thing. That's one of the reasons I personally enjoy using open source software so much.
Jonathan: Yeah. There's something about momentum that you just don't know where it's going to go, but you can see that it's there. And for those of us who are in this space, one of the things that I find fascinating is how easy it can be to kind of overlook just how much momentum is there. We don't have these big advertising budgets that some of the other platforms do, but there's this incredibly strong sort of diverse community beneath the surface and not even so much beneath the surface anymore. Where it's just a lot of momentum that just continues to grow.
Noëlle, one thing I'm curious about, so you've been in this eight years, give or take and at this point, you now have plenty of work. You're doing the types of things that you enjoy doing. Where do you see this going? Do you see yourself, some folks will go do the development route and then they'll switch into creating plugins and sort of go down the product route. Some will stay in it, some will grow and create a big agency. There's a lot of different paths. And from where you sit right now, not knowing what the future holds, what is your inclination? Where do you see this eCommerce sort of developer career trajectory taking you?
I am hoping and I'm aiming in the direction of really specializing with development. Getting deeper into that. Product development, I've thought to myself, huh, well, maybe one day when I take on a little bit less projects and leave a bit more time for creativity, I might just get into that. I have had some thoughts in the past of, oh, I wish there was something for that. And I'm getting to a point that I now can then develop myself something that might be useful to others. That could be interesting.
But the kind of projects that I most enjoy is adding, like I said, adding functionality to existing stores and especially going outside of the box, doing something completely different. Give me a challenge, give me a workflow you would like to see, but don't know how to achieve. I love working those things out and I would love to go deeper into those kind of things.
Jonathan: Awesome. You see yourself to sort of continuing on this trajectory and you're going to see where it takes you.
Noëlle: Yeah, I would say so I'm really enjoying the ride so far.
Bob: Very cool. Alrighty. Well, when we have you back on, oh let's say in 12, 16 months, we'll see how it rolled out for you.
I'm going to just give a shout out to the sponsors real quick and then I'm going to let Jonathan wrap this up. Again, PayPal. Jonathan, why don't you wrap this up for us?
Jonathan: Fantastic. Well, thank you so much, Noëlle, for joining us. If folks are interested in knowing more about what you're up to, where can they learn more?
Noëlle: They can visit noellesteegs.com to see some of my work and find out more about me. And thanks so much guys for for having me here, I really enjoyed the conversation. It was great.
Jonathan: Awesome. Well, thank you for sharing your story. It's always great to hear what other folks are up to in this space. And we look forward to seeing what you continue to do. And thanks for all that you've done in the community. I see you answering questions on the Facebook group and of course it's been fantastic working with you on WooCommerce Live and yeah, keep up the great work.
Noëlle: Thanks so much, Jonathan. It's been a pleasure.
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