The foundation of Starter WP is in a dorm room at the University of North Texas in Fall 2009. Like many technology companies, it started with a laptop (PowerBook), a person (Drate Berry), and an idea (to develop a website for an organization). Today, we build beautiful websites powered by WordPress for small businesses around the world. A company is often shaped by the vision and life of its founder, so here’s our story as told by Drate.
Growing Up an entrepreneur
I was born on June 7, 1990, in Tyler, Texas, a town of about 100,000 in East Texas between Dallas and the Louisiana border. I lived in Winnsboro, Texas, a town of 3,500 60 miles north of Tyler, until I went to college. When I was growing up I was the kid always looking for a way to make a buck. In elementary school I realized that a lot of the other kids would run out of writing paper or wouldn’t have a pencil. If this happened to you at my school, you had to miss the first five minutes of recess. When you’re a kid, five minutes seems like forever. While a lot of kids my age (I was 6) wouldn’t have thought a lot about their classmates not having supplies and missing out on part of recess, I saw this as a way to make some money.
My school’s PTA sold lollipops for a quarter and this was the only candy we could have at school so a lot of us always begged our parents for lollipop money. I decided that I could charge a quarter for two pieces of writing paper or a sharpened pencil and some of my classmates would pay it so they didn’t have to miss part of recess. At the end of the first week I think I had made something like $1, but when you’re 6 that feels like a ton of money. I went from selling writing paper and pencils to selling Pokémon trading cards, geodes, and Magic the Gathering card decks. I still have quite a collection of mid-90s Power Rangers toys and Pokémon cards that I hope will be worth something one day. Needless to say I got an early start to entrepreneurship.
I learned people like people who make them money
While I continued my wheeling and dealing ways during Elementary school and Junior High, once I got to high school I went through the time honored tradition of the summer job. Starting when I was 15, I worked at Camp Pirtle, the Boy Scout summer camp I had attended since I was 12. During my first summer I worked in the dining hall. Not the most glamorous job in the world, but I made a few extra dollars a week since I had to work from 5:30 in the morning until 10 at night without A/C during a Texas summer. If you’ve never been in Texas during the summer, it can easily still be in the 90s at night.
One of the things I learned that summer was that making people money was a guaranteed way to get them to like you. See our food was cooked by a food service company that was paid a lump sum. Food costs and their salaries were deducted from this amount, so controlling food waste was a huge priority. I learned during my first week that if you made the cooks happy, they would invite you to eat with them on Sunday. When you live on summer camp food, this is a huge deal. So I made sure that I always had just the right amount of juice, silverware, plates, and cups available for each meal. This meant an additional profit of almost $400/week for the food service company. They were happy and I was happy eating my steak every week. Two years later, I generated an extra $30,000 in profit over three weeks and eliminated product spoilage running the camp’s trading post. Ask me about that summer sometime.
The First Site
Early one morning (or maybe it was afternoon, this was college after all) I installed MAMP on my PowerBook and downloaded Drupal 6. At the time it seemed that all the innovative and “cool” sites were being built with Drupal so I decided that was what I needed to learn how to use. Before that day in my dorm room I had never written HTML or CSS much less PHP. At the time I didn’t even know what any of those acronyms meant. I was studying accounting and economics not a computer science major. So how did I get the idea to create my first website?
Like a lot of college students I was involved in several organizations both on and off campus and one of those groups needed a new website. They had a website built in Microsoft Publisher that looked like it was from 1997. Not exactly what you want when you’re trying to appeal to younger people. So I decided to try building the new website using a lot of stock plugins and photos, a stock theme, and reading everything I could about Drupal. A couple of weeks after I started, the website was ready to launch and I showed it to several of the group members to get feedback. After seeing the new site they thought it was amazing and they couldn’t wait for it to go live. Fortunately this was their response, otherwise I probably wouldn’t have kept going with web development.
The First Paying Client
A couple of weeks later I was back in my hometown and met a friend for a cup of coffee. While I was talking to my friend about the site I had just built, the owner of the coffee shop overheard me and asked if I built websites for businesses. Being the entrepreneur that I am, I immediately said yes and figured I could learn as I went along. We met the next day and over a cinnamon roll and coffee I landed my first client. I worked the rest of the week to design the site in Photoshop and Monday morning I sent her an email with the design.
A couple of rounds of revisions later and I was ready to start coding. At this point I still didn’t know what I was doing with PHP, but I had been reading about CSS3 and HTML5 so I felt confident I could turn my design into a working theme. After about two weeks of reading CSS tutorials and then writing CSS between classes, I finally had a theme that looked like my design. With that website launched, I decided that this wouldn’t be a bad “college job” where I could set my own hours and make decent money. I started to get a lot of referral work from the coffee shop owner, and my business started to grow.
Graduation was looming
Fast forward a couple of years and I’m entering my final semester of college. I’ve talked to a couple of friends that graduated a year or two before me and they’re working 80 hours a week or more in jobs they can’t wait to leave. I grew up with a father who always said the day he woke up and didn’t want to go to work would be the last day he worked at that company. He’s been with the same company for almost 25 years now, so being happy with your job was something I always saw growing up. I couldn’t imagine taking a job that I would hate and where I would not feel motivated to do my best work. So I started thinking about what my options were.
By this point I was averaging just under one new website client a month and had raised my rate 500% since my first few websites. So I decided to take the experience I had gained during college and turn that into a full time career. After filling half a legal pad with potential names for my business, Starter WP seemed to describe exactly what I wanted the business to provide - a start for small businesses to make their mark online.
Starter WP was born
I kept thinking about names that night and Starter WP kept sticking out in my mind. Just to see if it was even an option, I checked to see if the domain name was available, it was. Then I checked to see if the Twitter username was available, it was. Deciding that Starter WP obviously had the ability to stick in someone’s head, I bought the domain and registered the Twitter account that night. Still not sure if I was going to stick with the name I sent some emails to clients and friends asking their opinion of the name and a preliminary logo. When everyone came back saying they thought the name was catchy and they loved the logo, I knew we had a winner.
On March 25, 2013 I filed the paperwork with the Texas Secretary of State to create Starter WP. Since that time we’ve had the opportunity to work with some incredible clients including the Boy Scouts of America, The Sierra Club, Marcus & Millichap, and dozens of small businesses. We’ve helped drive billions of dollars in revenue to our clients through the use of innovative design and conversion optimization research. It’s one of the benefits of having a business degree, you never leave behind a love of statistics, facts, and spreadsheets.
No one knows what the future holds which is why we all have to make the most of each day. I’m positive that one day something will come along and replace the Internet, just like it made encyclopedias, phone books, and writing letters obsolete. But until that happens, I hope to continue working with businesses to help them grow in new and innovative ways. Each week I make a point to look back on the work we’ve done and ask if that’s truly the best work we can produce and if we’re delivering the best value and service to our clients. If the answer to that question is no, then something has to change.
My goal for Starter WP is to always deliver the best work we can to every client we serve regardless of project size or budget. If you ever feel that isn’t the case, let me know and I’ll make it right.