Last year, sometime in February I think, a couple of design/marketing friends and I got together for coffee and one of the things that came up in conversation was an idea for a particular type of website that’s not represented in our region of the country. Let’s call it Idea X, just for kicks.

I was intrigued by Idea X – I’d been playing with the concept for a few months, but when it was also mentioned by someone else, I really couldn’t get it out of my head.

I started doing some research into how to implement Idea X in a website. I wound up installing a copy of Joomla and spending time looking for the right combination of plugins to build my site. Months later, I’d spent a lot of time on this project – a huge amount of time customizing the plugins’ styling, and learning how to build a custom template for Joomla. But it just wasn’t working the way I wanted it too, and I was at a standstill on getting help for the main plugin that formed the glue of my site.

I had a few colleagues test the site, and the results were not good. Last summer, I wound up walking away from the project for awhile.

Enter WordPress

Then, around July or August, I got a couple of WordPress projects back to back. I didn’t know how to theme WordPress at that point, so I hired someone to do it for me. To make an icky little story shorter,  my designer totally missed the mark and failed to deliver. That turned out to be a huge blessing in disguise – I was forced to sit down and learn how to theme WordPress myself. The first one took 10 hours; now I can do it in 2-3, pixel-perfect.

So after a few more months and a lot more WordPress work, I once again found myself thinking about Idea X. I wondered if it could be implemented in WordPress?

The short answer: not easily. The long answer: how much time do you have and are you willing to spend a large amount of it hunting for obscure answers on Google?

I jumped back into it and set up a WordPress site. I found some really intricate and well-written tutorials about doing Idea X in WordPress, pretty cool stuff, although most of it was not up to date.

I recreated the site, plus a few extra features, in WordPress. I translated my custom Joomla template over to WordPress, added in the recommended plugins, then got my hands dirty learning how to do programming to customize the plugins according to the tutorials I found.

This version of the site took less time than the Joomla one. When I sent it out for testing, the results were mixed, but better – it was clunky, but it was a good idea. It didn’t do ‘y’ or ‘z’ the way it was expected too, but my testers could see the value of such a site.

Some of the things that were problematic for the testers were issues that I couldn’t resolve – they were products of the outdated plugins, and I didn’t have the programming knowledge to fix all of them. And I was beginning not to like the template anymore.

Frustrated, I walked away again.

Round 3

But I came back over Thanksgiving weekend – I scrapped what I was doing, installed a fresh copy of WordPress with none of the old plugins, and reworked the template until I was happy.

I read a chapter in a book that taught me how to build a job board (one of the extras I’d planned) from scratch – I happily followed the tutorials and then spent a few weeks customizing it. It’s cool, it looks pretty good and it works – and I learned a lot in the process, learning to work with some of the tried-and-true WordPress plugins like TDO Miniforms.

I did more research on Idea X and WordPress, hoping to find something more current. I thought I had – I purchased a plugin, installed it, was very pleased with it right out of the box and spent, again, a lot of time customizing the look and feel.

Until the developer dropped off the radar in March. He took down his forum and stopped responding to any support requests. Custom fields entered using his plugin are not saved to the WordPress database, and I lack the time and inclination to fix that.

Today I found another plugin – current, with an active forum and support ticketing system. I more or less like the look of the showcase sites and the demo, and sent a list of questions to the developer to see if this will be my holy grail for getting Idea X off the ground. I’m not opposed to switching again, but I think this will be the last time I do it, if it turns out that this plugin will indeed do what I need it to do.

At least for a few months.

I spent a few hours this weekend going over my website, Red Kite Creative, making some changes to improve readability and better show what I can do for clients. I haven’t really done this since the ‘new’ site went up about 15 months ago (not to the whole site, anyway)… it’s ironic that it’s hard to keep my own site up to date, as a web designer. Sigh.

So, I made some changes:

  • Cut back the text quite a bit on many pages, including the home page. I replaced blocks of text  with lists when possible, or put them into blockquotes to set them apart from regular paragraphs. Less wordy, more concise.
  • I removed the ugly little email newsletter sign up form from the top section of my site and moved it into the sidebar, above the fold. I redesigned it to be smaller, but with a big obvious ‘Sign Up’ button. Before it wasn’t so obvious, and I haven’t had a lot of registrations for my newsletter in the past.
  • I added information specifically about WordPress – WP is really becoming my platform of choice lately and I want to promote my skills. I added a block of content on the home page about it, and a brand new page just for WordPress.
  • Created a new services page; the old one was way too long.
  • Replaced the old services menu with a new one that always shows subpages.
  • Replaced the old ‘website makeovers’ page with a new redesign page – I’m using HighSlide to show before-and-after screenshots of redesigned sites.
  • Created a new page for custom portfolio and gallery design. I’m a landscape architect by education, and I work with a number of architects, designers, photographers and artists. I really love building imagery-focused sites and want to make this a more prominent part of my business. I showed a few example screenshots from some of my portfolio projects on this page, too.

I’m happier with the site now – it’s much cleaner-looking and there’s not as much reading required to get the point across. I hope prospective clients agree!

Since I decided to take the plunge and get a dedicated server for my hosting company, I’ve been working on ways to focus on and improve my offerings as a full-service small business host.

Of course, I’m a one-person company right now – the main reason design clients and others host with me is that they want personal service. My goal now is to make the hosting decision as easy as possible for them by offering both hosting and other services as a one-stop shop.

In the past few weeks, I’ve implemented a number of changes at NOCO (not including buying the dedi):

  • set up an affiliate program for hosting clients in WHMCS. If a new referral comes through a NOCO text or image link on an existing client’s site, the current client gets a credit on their account.
  • replaced my static FAQ page with a new dynamic one using the phpMyFAQ system. Now clients or potential clients can post a question if they don’t find the answers they need, and I can add new items to the FAQ more easily.
  • added two SSL certificates with free installation. I’m thinking about adding more – my domain provider Enom offers quite a few but when I tried to set one up in WHMCS I had some issues.
  • added free trial accounts – a prospective client can check out NOCO for seven days. I’m using a module from WHMCS Gold to manage free trials. They’re automagically removed from the server at the end of the trial if the prospect decides not to sign up.
  • added daily offsite backups through bqbackup, to supplement the onsite ones. Just for my peace of mind.
  • added Plesk Sitebuilder for those new hosting clients looking for a simple templated site.

That last item required some serious consideration – was I possibly cutting myself out of work by offering a Sitebuilder system? But I don’ t think so. The hosting clients that come to NOCO on their own – through searches or ads – may be looking for a quick fix, the kind they can get with site-building tools at the big box hosts. But if they’re looking for a local hosting company with those kinds of tools, then NOCO can meet that need.

When I started NOCO Hosting I only made mention of Red Kite once – on the About Us page. But I’ve rethought that; I’m now advertising the availability of professional custom web design and development services on NOCO’s site.

I think I’m on the right track with my goal of repositioning NOCO as a boutique hosting resource for small businesses, primarily local ones, but I do have a number of clients in other states now. I plan to continue adding new services and goodies for clients as appropriate.