How a Freelancer Built Asia’s Only “WordPress.com VIP Partner” Agency
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At BlogVault, we recently spoke to Rahul Bansal, founder of rtCamp; Asia’s first WordPress.com VIP partner agency. He shares his convictions, struggles, the formation of rtCamp, the growth story that eventually led to this watershed achievement, and his thoughts on ethics & business practices.
India is waking up to the presence of WordPress in the digital landscape now. On the cusp of this realization, rtCamp has emerged to become the very first WordPress.com VIP Partner in Asia. It is a prestigious featured partner program that has till now picked only 12 agencies; including rtCamp, as partners worldwide.
To those in the Indian WordPress community this achievement is definitely a breath of fresh air, considering the unwanted reputation agencies from South Asia carry in global WordPress(WP) market.
As part of the same WP community, and as global leaders in backups & security, we at BlogVault wanted to record this achievement. The premier WordPress agency on the continent has definitely crossed a threshold and its founder joined us recently to trace his journey.
Rahul Bansal answers questions on his convictions, struggles, the formation of rtCamp, and the growth story that eventually led to this watershed achievement.
A Decade Ago: Building up Skills
Rahul’s journey started almost accidentally as he took up blogging during his engineering days, purely to follow a friend he looked up to. The rampant focus on remuneration packages instead of work profiles pushed him away from conventional job interviews during campus placement.
“I didn’t want to join any company; hence I took up M. Tech. It was essentially an escape”, says Bansal. Rahul says that he got more free time during his M. Tech. He began to enjoy blogging; and the journey took an interesting turn as he discovered Google AdSense.
The revenues from AdSense were sufficient to convince Rahul that he could take up blogging professionally. It was this decision that would eventually take him away from blogging and towards developing on WordPress. But, more on that in a bit.
The Family Front: A Quintessentially Indian Story
Rahul was thinking of becoming a professional blogger in the India of 2006. That too, after his engineering. It is not an easy switch to sell to our parents even now, so it could not have been easy then!
Rahul admits this to be a tough period in his life. However, he found an interesting analogy to help him. “…I used to explain my profession to my folks, especially the older ones, with the analogy of a news agency. [the conversation would go something like this]”
“Do you read a newspaper?”
“How much does a newspaper cost?”
“1 or 2 rupees!”
“Is that enough to run a news agency?”
No! They make money from ads”
“I do the same thing. I run a newspaper online and make my money from ads.”
For the most part, that was that, and Rahul was a professional blogger. He suspects that the point that eventually convinced his parents was that he was no longer taking money from them.
The decision to turn a professional blogger also meant that he had to prepare to do the job well. As part of this project, blogger Rahul turned to WordPress to customize his site and gain more control over his content and its presentation. This turn, which came out of a necessity, would lead him to be fascinated with WordPress, the CMS’ ease of use, and the many possibilities the platform presented. All of these factors planted the seed of freelancing as a WordPress web developer in his mind; although he wouldn’t give up blogging straight away (after all it was a steady source of income and his blog was growing in popularity).
The Freelance Route to the rtCamp Journey
Perhaps one could read into Rahul’s approach to freelancing, and see the success to come. He says, “I was already making money from the blog. It was because I wanted learn many things on WordPress that I began freelancing.” So, he says that he made a list of things he wanted to learn in WP and went after projects with “realistic challenges”, “realistic deadlines”, and “realistic value” that would help him learn those skills.
The blogging trails paid rich dividends during his freelancing days too. There cannot be a better example for how popular his blog- Devil’s Workshop, was at the time, and for how having rich content can help any business more than the following story. Rahul recollects that he was once awarded a project before the details were finalized. He was surprised and inquired the client. He says, “The client only said that You are running such a successful blog, you must be doing something right!” Rahul says, “On the internet, it is your skills, not your academics that speak for you. That is how the internet works.”
The blogging trail combined with his desire to learn and grow continuously meant that Rahul built a successful client base as a freelancer. His list included clients from around the world. Although, he is quick to point out that this diverse client base wasn’t planned; instead he says “I just went after projects and opportunities [which interested me].”
This approach proved to be financially successful as well. Rahul remembers how almost all of his clients wanted to work with him again after the first projects were completed. This ensured that the workload burgeoned to the point that he couldn’t handle it alone.
Rahul’s growth in his individual professional life coincided with the 2008 global recession. During this period many of his friends could no longer depend on the giants of the IT industry to guarantee them a job. He pitched the work he was doing to them and when some of them showed interest, he trained them. The burden of his workload decreased and the business expanded. This expansion would eventually be titled rtCamp but that was still a few months away.
So far Rahul’s decisions don’t seem obvious to anyone. Turning away from a career after engineering. Convincing his parents about becoming a professional blogger; and taking up freelancing projects as a web developer to learn a CMS that; in 2006-2008 India, was not nearly as popular as it is now.
Another one of such decisions was that, very early on, he decided that he would work solely on WP. This decision too was born out of his conviction, “I believe we should only develop on software we use.” “To date, even out of curiosity, I haven’t installed Joomla or Drupal” explains Rahul. Hence he was a WordPress freelancer much before the marketplace emerged for the title in the country. Following his convictions, as Rahul himself states was a “good decision [looking back].”
rtCamp: The Core Values
The more we spoke the more we realised that Rahul’s freelancing days would come to shape his own values and lay the groundwork for the path rtCamp would take. During his period as a freelancer, Rahul was not only fascinated with acquiring skills but was interested by the open-source platform; and the community that came with it.
In that period he participated in many meetups. The “un-conference” culture of the WordPress community and the open-source movement charmed him. Going along with this, he wanted a work environment where “everyone respects everyone”. The value he derived from camps, and his “hunger for equality”; as Rahul puts it, eventually led to ‘rtCamp’.
rt stands for roundtable, a reference to the famous roundtable of the noble knights in the Arthurian legend. The ‘Camp’ part comes from the desire to replicate the community driven culture around Bar/Word/php camps which Rahul used to attend- an environment where everyone participates, speaks up and takes ownership. It was an idea he had come to cherish. “I liked the unconference culture and wanted the same in my organization. I believe everybody must speak and express themselves rather than simply taking orders.” says Rahul.
So it is not a hyperbole or an act of taking credit in hindsight when he says, “Looking back you can always connect dots. Our core values have made us the kind of company we are today. One who loves WordPress, open-source, and contributes to the community”
He says we always encourage all ‘rtCampers’ (as the people who work at the agency are called), to participate in the community, whether it is by attending WP meetups, WordCamps or by other means.
On Landing Big Clients: The Case of Geometric
The points about the “un-conference” culture, and the encouragement for people to take ownership, shine through when you ask Rahul about how rtCamp landed its first big client- Geometric Global.
He began his response to us by crediting rtCamp’s then Head of Marketing, Gajanan Sapate.
Sapate suggested building rtCamp’s presence on LinkedIn as a WordPress Agency. Although Rahul wasn’t keen on the idea Sapate went ahead without his approval, Rahul recollects. “That is what the round table culture is all about,” he says proudly.
Around the time, Geometric Global were on the lookout for a WP agency. They are an MNC and as Rahul pointed out they have offices around the world. The website part of the business however was managed out of Hinjewadi near Pune. They wanted a local vendor to build their site on WP. Decisive on these two points- location of the vendor & the CMS, they went looking for a WP agency on LinkedIn.
This was around 2011-12 and Rahul suspects that Geometric Global’s search for a WP agency on LinkedIn resulted in only rtCamp’s name popping up as there were no other WP agencies at the time. Sapate’s initiative had paid off and only time would reveal how handsomely it had paid off.
For what seemed like a pleasantly fated start, the relationship between Geometric Global and rtCamp was anything but that. rtCamp at the time was a small agency. Despite its size, some members of Geometric Global were keen on working with them. The reason for this was once again; among other points, the Blog- Devil’s Workshop. Rahul remembers that some members of Geometric Global were already familiar with his blog when they approached rtCamp. Apart from this, rtCamp’s plugins on WordPress.org, open-source projects, and participation in and contribution to the WP community were all reasons in their favour.
Even today, Rahul suggests that younger agencies looking to build a reputation with WP must show their love for the CMS by making contributions to the community. This is not simply a pedantic statement. In fact, WordPress.com announced rtCamp as a VIP partner with an article, where rtCamp’s “record of community engagement” was specially mentioned as the reason for extending them VIP partnership.
While the above points were in favour of rtCamp, some other points were not. For starters they were not used to a seemingly long sales cycle of around 6 months. During that phase, Rahul recalls that most, if not all of rtCamps’ sales cycle lasted a maximum period of 2 weeks. This shift proved to be quite frustrating as Rahul mentions. Along with this, rtCamp was also not familiar with many processes that were required by enterprise level clients. They failed many checks like access control (magnetic strip cards) among others.
This meant that, while rtCamp was optimally placed to deliver a project which was based on WordPress for Geometric Global, they were not aware of many requirements and practices of enterprise clients. Both parties, Rahul admits, acknowledged these points. Rahul remembers being upfront in his approach when it came to selling to his first big client, and they eventually landed the project.
Even after this however, the demands of servicing an enterprise client was taking its toll on a small but growing agency. One of the reasons for this was that rtCamp billed Geometric Global like all other of their other clients. This was unsustainable as Rahul himself admits. Geometric Global’s value at the time was greater than the combined value of all their other clients. The demands were also greater to go along with this.
All these struggles meant that Rahul was unconvinced with the idea of taking on enterprise clients. He says that for about two years after signing Geometric Global he did not try to sign any other enterprise clients. During this 2 year period however, their relationship with Geometric Global evolved and stabilized. It wasn’t easy as Rahul recollects, “Even after [we signed them] there was steep learning curve.” Geometric Global’s willingness to work with rtCamp and train them on certain issues sustained the work Rahul recollects. In fact, the suggestion to increase the price too came from Geometric Global Rahul mentions. This maturing relationship eventually convinced Rahul that enterprise level clients were the way forward for rtCamp. It seems that rtCamp hasn’t looked back since.
Mission “WordPress.com VIP Partner”: A New Year’s Resolution
There is a diffident smile on Rahul’s face when he mentions that at an rtCamp New Year’s party he announced that the agency would become a WordPress.com VIP Partner. While he admits that he didn’t have very specific roadmap in mind then, he planned for it every day for the last 18 months.
Part of the plan was to deliver VIP grade code to their clients before they had contact with WordPress.com. Rahul surmises, “Most people change when there is a need to [do so]. We started coding at VIP standards when our clients were not asking for it.”
Such preparation has paid off very well. Rahul says that when they got their first VIP project from WordPress.com, “The code was approved in the very first round!”
However, if you ask Rahul why he aimed to become a VIP partner, then the story takes a more poignant turn. He had noticed how clients abroad would switch off when they knew an agency was from South Asia. Rahul recognised that it would be hard for everyone to go through rtCamp’s work. Having a symbol of quality would bypass some of these issues he though, and becoming the first VIP partner in Asia seemed like the solution.
Unique Growth Story of an Indian Agency: Way forward for Indian WP communities
The challenges were many and in that context the growth of rtCamp is surely a unique story. This is so, not just because of it has done but also because of how the agency has done it. It is one thing to come up with a name or a set of values, and another to thing to stand by and act according those convictions when you know they aren’t going to work in your favor. This is what Rahul has done.
He recollects a time when a Project Manager at rtCamp made an error in scoping the document. This led to a verbal commitment to deliver the project on a deadline. When the D-day neared, the error surfaced. Rahul recollects how he not only admitted the error straightaway to the client but resolved to work for the remaining duration of the project for free. “If we made a mistake, then we should pay for it. Why should the client suffer?”, Rahul asserts.
Although the client was very pleased with the results when the project was eventually completed and offered to compensate rtCamp, Rahul says that he refused. He reasoned that they might forget the lessons they learned if they accepted payment.
These actions though exemplary, almost drove Rahul to bankruptcy. The client was one of their biggest at the time and working for them at no cost meant Rahul had to pay a heavy price. If not for a friend who loaned him some money, Rahul would not have been able to even pay the salaries. These decisions are only more admirable because of the accompanying circumstances. Just before the incident came to light Rahul had got married. A new phase of his personal life began with a crisis in his professional one. Although it looks like he took a big gamble; and he did, Rahul simply says, “It was about doing the right thing.”
It is this combination of technical expertise, professionalism and a high level of adherence to their core values and ethical business practices that sets the foundation of rtCamp’s success. It is also a good sign-post for younger WP agencies to begin charting their paths.
“Becoming a WordPress.com VIP partner is the start of something,” Rahul says. He is not about to rest on his laurels but, “… everything we do must be better now … and we’re working harder to get everything right.” Rahul says he feels more responsible now as there is a sense of representing the Indian WordPress community.
At BlogVault, we wish Rahul and rtCamp all the very best and we look forward to seeing the next big thing from them.
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