Scaling up WordPress: 3 advices from the newsletter

In my latest newsletter I’ve asked about whether anyone reading this blog needed (free) advice scaling up WordPress projects. I regularly help out friends with their apps and ideas, and the same topics tend to bubble up all the time – maybe there are more generic advices there that you could use too?

Here, the three questions that came up most.

1. How do I find developers?

Apart from a couple of guys I love to work with, I quite often hire people on Upwork. It’s not as easy as it seems actually: a lot of developers are available, good and bad, and if you don’t know WordPress or to code yourself, it’s quite difficult to tell them apart.

My usual practise is to come up with a small enough part of the project, and test the team’s abilities on a development server. For example, instead of redesigning the whole website in the course of a few months, they will just work on a landing page template for two days. If they succeed they are in for the long run, otherwise I only lost a couple of days altogether.

It’s important to mention that at this point the developers have access to only a copy of the project and non-sensitive data. You’d be surprised to know how many professional-looking development companies went on to accidentally delete all data from my (test) databases.

2. How much more expensive is scalable cloud hosting compared to other providers?

To compare, a non-scalable alternative Hostgator starts at $2.78 per month, which you can’t really compete with on the price level. If you never plan to scale the project it might as well be a good enough solution actually.

For apps that need to scale however, you will need to set up database and file storages, and those are to be paid for separately. (Mind you, using an Amazon EC2 instance or any VPS, and then hosting the static files and database there is pretty much as scalable as Hostgator is.)

To avoid comparing apples to oranges then, let’s just say that the maximum amount of traffic you can serve with standard hosting providers can be easily hosted on the smallest hobby Heroku instance as well, for $7/month. Amazon EC2’s smallest instance would cost around $25/mo.

File storage depends on the traffic and the size of the static files: for this blog with ~3000 monthly unique visitors I pay less than $0.1 in a year, but more traffic and bigger files (like hosting videos for example) would cost you more.

Cloud MySQL databases start at $3.5/mo from ClearDB, Amazon RDS starts around $20/mo (though you can use that for multiple projects).

All in all, a small website is around ~$10/mo on scalable cloud solutions versus ~$3/mo on Hostgator. The big difference is that if you suddenly need to support a higher load of traffic, it only takes a few clicks to scale up on Heroku – while Hostgator just slows down.

3. Why am I pushing for Heroku as opposed to Amazon?

Most development companies are familiar with Amazon EC2 and simple VPS solutions. Those are actually excellent products and are very flexible, but the exact reason I like to recommend Heroku is that it’s more strict.

For example, you can only copy files to Heroku via a Git repository, and you can’t access them via FTP. Developers like to argue that they could also use git to push code to an EC2 server. However, they can also just modify the code directly, and if that’s quicker and easier, that’s exactly what they will do.

Developers tend to get lazy and fall back to harmful defaults, like, storing files on ephemeral disks. All those bad decisions would then keep the project from scaling up quickly in the future — but if those options are not even available, at least that’s one less thing to worry about.

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My swimming habit in the US

Swimming in New York is almost impossible if you’re from elsewhere. In Manhattan all clubs seem to be members-only, so for a single session I would end up paying the $150+ enrolment fee plus $25 for the entrance. I don’t like the idea of a 45+ minutes ride to a more public pool in Queens either.

I take my new swimming habit quite seriously: starting this year, I went every single week. No matter how much work I needed to be done otherwise, no matter which city or country I was in, or no matter how tired I felt. Once I went directly from the airport after an overnight flight, getting my first sleep at noon that day.

New York was the first to stop me, but I was heading out and the week wasn’t over yet.

Chicago offered a brilliant alternative right off the bat: you can use Hotel Intercontinental’s gym even without being hotel guests. Built in the 1920s and finished just before the stock market crash, the building itself is part of the national heritage, and, it features a junior olympic size pool. Just perfect for a Home Alone style splash.


I don’t think Intercontinental advertises this anywhere — on a weekday the pool was as deserted as a Kanye West concert should be –, but if you walk up to the hotel concierge and don’t look like an idiot, it’s quite likely that you’ll be let in. Entrance was $70 with tip, for the two of us, including sauna and gym. Can’t think of anything to better spend that money on.

Swimming this week: check.

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Wind in the city

The south side of Chicago is where all the drug addicts and the very-very poor people live — my friends rushed to throw this fact in, about where to stay in Windy City. Yet here we are: 11pm at night, sitting in a car and heading south.

The scenery does indeed change block-by-block. Once we pass south loop, the road becomes full of patches and potholes, and at one point we suddenly smell the very distinctive smell of marijuana. In the car, with the air filter on, in the middle of a four-lane road we ask ourselves: where can this smell possibly come from?

The weed cloud comes from one of the cars around. It’s not uncommon to smoke-and-drive here.

Could be worse.

My friend from high school, our guide for the night, works here in one of the world’s most famous hospitals: University of Chicago is where the first controlled chain reaction has been carried out. “Quietly, in secrecy, on a squash court under the west stands of old Stagg Field.”

Some of the hospital’s patients have AIDS, some Hepatitis A, B or C, and as you might have guessed: there are patients with all of those. Yet, it could be worse.

When we drive around the houses, we see many demolished buildings. With so many homeless people out there it’s hard to see what sense it makes to break houses down, but I’m actually impartial on this: if everyone moves out from one house, drug addicts and their dealers quickly move in. The state demolishes these houses to keep violence out, which does bring some transparency into a neighbourhood.

Street safety is a priority issue, especially since Chicago overtook Los Angeles in homicide rates. A dark police car is stationed at the corner of every second block. Perhaps that’s going to help, but I’m crossing my fingers now: “let’s not get a flat tire here”.

After the quick visit we are heading back downtown and have a cocktail in one of the clubs. There is Kooks on the radio, I put my phone on charge, and realise that I haven’t made any pictures in those last three hours.

How stupid.

Yeah, could be worse.

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We are in New York with my girlfriend for some time. NYC is one of my favourite cities in the world: it’s big and smelly and exciting. It’s so creative and moves so fast that it propels everyone who comes around.

It’s a wonderful place, but I couldn’t live here: it’s really-really far from my family in Europe.

London is a good compromise. It’s close to all my family members, but it also is: big and exciting and beautiful. It too, attracts all the creative minds and inspires the hell out of them. When I tell Londoners that I find this city to be a good compromise, they are of course happy: we all understand that compromise is a good thing, and as such, London is pretty good in every aspect, though not the best in all of them.

Berlin is a good compromise too: it is exciting and inspires people, but they say that it doesn’t move that fast so you can have an actual life. It’s spacious and cheap, so you can work on side projects or book ideas or startups aside. When I tell Berliners that I find their city to be a good compromise, they seem to feel hurt. ‘You think Berlin is not the best in every way? Well, fuck you then!’

Well, fuck you too, for missing the point.

People who think that they are better than every other person in every existing aspect, are: not much fun to live with.

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Predicting the global economy

Let’s all look at this chart: the International Monetary Fund forecasts the global economy’s growth each year.

Predicting the Global Economy

Breaking it down, these are the numbers of 2010:

Predicting the Global Economy

…so the IMF forecast seems to be rather optimistic:

Predicting the Global Economy

That’s a near miss, the actual numbers in 2011:

Predicting the Global Economy

Sure enough, that’s a depressing trend, but it’s probably over, right?

Predicting the Global Economy

Nope, still doesn’t seem to be correcting. Maybe next year? Or the year after that? What do you think of the 2016 predictions?

Predicting the Global Economy

From this interview with George Soros:

“…it’s much better to face harsh reality than to close your eyes to it. Once you are aware of the dangers, your chances of survival are much better if you take some risks than if you meekly follow the crowd. That is why I trained myself to look at the dark side.”

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It’s the same person

Dust Brothers are famous for their work on the soundtrack of Fight Club, many of Beck’s songs and on what’s pretty much Hanson’s only hit.

What’s astonishing is that all those works are completely different from each other: not many people would put Fight Club’s soundtrack and MMMBop on the same playlist.

While writing this post, I’m listening to Dead Man’s Bones’s In The Room Where You Sleep. At the mic, it’s the same person who played Lars in the movie Lars and the Real Girl, then, a few years later the hot guy in Crazy, Stupid, Love: Ryan Gosling.

Danny Boyle directed and John Hodge wrote some of my all-time favourite movies like the Shallow Grave, Trainspotting or The Beach.

This sort of genius is not uncommon. Creativity seems to be this unstoppable thing that pursues you to stay up late and follow the voice in your head. People who have the voice don’t seem to be able to get rid of it. They are bound to meet like-minded folks and then put out whatever they are capable of producing together.

Another one of my favourite examples used to be Prince: he wasn’t only a musician but mastered many instruments, produced movies or wrote crazy songs for other artists.

It will never seize to be inspiring.

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Users can’t be copied

“My philosophy on consumer-based Internet companies is that you don’t need to worry about the business model initially. If you get users then everything else follows. Basically any technology can be copied, any concept can be copied. In my opinion, what makes these companies valuable is the users. That can’t be copied.”

— Mark Fletcher, founder of Blogline, in Jessica Livingston’s Founders at Work.

After many failed attempts on building social networks, I couldn’t agree more. My few successful projects that worked out well, worked only because the idea had enough traction before the product became any good.

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Fair trade

Don’t pay the extra fee on fair trade coffee. Buy regular coffee, and pay the bare minimum that keeps the workers afloat and the beans to grow. You’re not stupid to spend more than you have to.

Act surprised when it turns out that your coffee is produced with child labour. Act even more surprised when it turns out that they use cheap pesticides, to keep the costs low.

You’ll be more surprised when it turns out that the poison, used on coffee plantations for pest control, is in your city’s sewage system now.

How did it get there?

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“Don’t wait until the slaptree’s fruits are ready to harvest”, my mom used to say when we misbehaved with my brother. Naturally she meant that if we didn’t cut it out, she would introduce us to another term, one that can turn our cheeks red.

It’s never going to work, telling kids about an awesome tree that they’ve never seen to make them stop doing something. Now we misbehaved twice as much just to learn more about the slaptree.

Soon enough, we learned that things that sound well might not be as good after all.

And, much later, I’ve learned about the power of stories from a different perspective. My first editor told me to always start the article with the most important thing first. “People read news to be surprised”, he said, “when something happened is usually the least surprising piece of information you can start with.”

Most of the news you read in papers are the same across the media: the facts are facts, there is little room to change them without being inaccurate or head-on deceptive. What you can do however, is to look for the most interesting pieces and build the story arc around those. That’s how the Financial Times can be so different from the Daily Mail while the facts remain pretty much the same.

Whenever you say that your product is just the same as any other competitor’s, you’re probably right. But that doesn’t mean that your story has to be the same as everyone else’s story.

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Focus on the routine

There was no plural for the word “priority” in the beginning of the previous century.

Now, I’ve heard this from a friend and the claim doesn’t actually check out to be true, but he has a point.

When everything is important, nothing is important.

Multitasking is a myth: when we think we are good at it, we really are just good at switching between tasks very quickly.

Focusing on multiple things at the same time is therefore simply inefficient. You can memorise two poems easier if you learn the one first and then the other one. Any other method — like memorising the first verse from each poem and then do the rest –, would take you longer.

This year I’m trying to pick up a few new habits. Probably too many of those in fact, but the top three were: do sports regularly, eat healthier and write more often. Building new habits requires a lot of attention, and it’s even more difficult to keep track of many at the same time.

Habit - Frederique Comics

I attribute the so-far high success rate to be able to focus on one habit at the time. For example, it was easy to start with a new sports routine: I only needed to make sure the time slots are set and blocked out, and everyone involved in setting my schedule knew about it. It was a drag at first, but a couple of weeks in I woke up on a Wednesday and couldn’t wait to swim — that’s when I knew the habit is set.

Swimming organically brought changing my diet habits too, because you need to eat something before jumping in the water, and you can’t just eat burgers after a good workout.

It’s actually quite fun how much technology didn’t help with these habits: if anything, all the apps I’ve tried were just distracting. In the aftermath it’s not a surprise, just look at the two most popular habit apps: Balance and How many features are there!

Tracking progress is fun though, and I’ve followed a simple method that I’ve learned from my girlfriend. She would put tiny checks in her calendar for the dates she went to the gym.

Without having a physical calendar, I just drew the days of the month on my blackboard and crossed them out whenever I’ve done sports. Something like:

[01] [xx] [xx] [04] [05] [xx] [07]
[08] [xx] [10] [xx] [12] [xx] [14]

Maybe someone can show me an app for that?

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